Examiner.com Shifts Away From Local In Favor ‘Topics’

Ashish Kapur, ExaminerLike a lot of content aggregators, Examiner.com saw its traffic rise to new heights by focusing on search results, then saw the multitudes evaporate when Google changed its algorithm two years ago. Since then, the company has been trying to shift away from the hyperlocal model it had when it launched in 2008, and develop posts from “experts” on particular topic.

Last June, Ashish Kapur, who arrived at Examiner as COO in the fall of 2011 after serving as a top digital executive at Disney, was elevated to the CEO post. AdExchanger interviewed Kapur about Examiner’s advertising strategy, which has evolved from relying on standard, direct response ads to brand sponsorships and native advertising. The company is now exploring how to augment its direct sales team with programmatic tools. A decision is expected before the summer.

AdExchanger: How has Examiner.com evolved since you arrived from Disney? Have its challenges changed?

ASHISH KAPUR: When I came to Examiner.com, it was in a state like any startup. It goes through periods of evolution. Two, three years ago, we were a different company.  At that point, though, the model was just scaling. The whole model about recruiting people who were intensely passionate about subjects in local areas to write about things that they really care about. We recruited a lot of examiners. The audience came, and we we thought that if we added more examiners, the good things would continue happen.

Then, two years ago, after [Google’s search results algorithm] Panda was introduced, things changed.  You couldn’t just keep throwing up content, and expect the audience to come.  The company was at a crossroads when I came into the equation.  We have, in the past year and a half, really changed the company around. The fundamental value proposition is still the same: hiring local, knowledgeable experts, creating a large-scale content platform.  What’s changed is how we approach quality.  How do we approach the product?

So what needed to change?

Around that time, we had 255 different websites, kind of like the Patch model.  There was a Denver examiner, a San Francisco examiner. What I realized is that none of these destinations are truly authentic. If you’re a hiking enthusiast, you just don’t want to look at Denver hiking. You want to look at hiking product reviews. You want to look at other things hiking related. We changed it to a topic-centered network first, where local surfaces when it’s relevant.

What was the result?

We removed a lot of duplicative content and pursued SEO Best Practices. In the last year, our audience has doubled. We are at 50 million uniques, and according to ComScore, we are in the top 14 news and information sites.

The other thing that’s changed: What we did last year is create a new line of business called OnTopic. We realized that, “Hey, we have this huge asset which is a big pool of examiners.”  By the way, we recruited roughly 100,000 total examiners since its inception. Last year, we had about 32,000 examiners contribute content to our site.

The idea was that these folks are writing content for us and writing it on Examiner.com.  What if we unleashed this power for other brands?  Our first client was CBS.  The company came to us saying, “Look, we have all these local websites. We need authentic content on them. They had a bunch of freelancers writing content. Let’s say CBS L.A. came to us saying, “We need content around best bars in L.A.” I have a bartender who lives in L.A.  She’s an examiner. She has a body of work on Examiner.com. I can really identify that high-quality contributor, and she can write content for you.”

They liked that concept. We have grown, and Justin can speak to it because he manages that account.  We are now supplying 1,000 pieces a month to CBS. The other thing we have done is content sponsorship.

That’s more like advertorial or sponsored content. If Pepsi comes to us through an agency saying, “Look, we’re launching this whole Pepsi Next campaign.  We’re buying standard media, but we really want content as well coming from people who are passionate about food and drink,” what we would do is mobilize examiners to write about the Pepsi Next campaign, distribute that content on our website, or even give it to the agency to distribute across other venues.

Are sponsorships and native ads the primary revenue streams for Examiner.com?

I realized when I came here that having the direct sales people knocking on doors saying, “Buy media on Examiner.com,” was not working. So we shifted focus and created much more of a programmatic optimization kind of model where you’re working with multiple exchanges. You’re working with networks, ad agencies and optimizing the entire inventory.  When you think about the different tiers, we have the bottom tier: the ad networks, the remnant providers. Then we have the middle tier where we work with ad agencies directly.

That’s in our sweet spot because I can mobilize a bunch of writers to write about a major marketer’s new product either directly or indirectly and then surround it by media… We don’t have a massive sales force. These kinds of opportunities come to us organically or through an agency that we built relationships with over time.

Are you saying that you’re selling native advertising in addition to standard ads programmatically?

Honestly, we are experimenting.  I think right now it’s more internal optimization where I’m not putting all my eggs in a programmatic basket and letting some computer determine the fate of my publishing business. Instead, we are carving out inventory and trying different things out, whether it’s an RTB, ad exchange operator or a supply side platform.

Are you actively working with an SSP?

Right now, I would say we’re relying on internal optimization across multiple avenues, also testing different exchanges for programmatic buying.

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