United Online Turns To OpenX’s SSP — But Please, No Private Marketplaces

Santo Criscuolo, United OnlineUnited Online is not a typical publisher. Unlike newspaper or magazine sites, it operates the social-media yearbook site Classmates, online florist shop FTD, consumer internet-access tools NetZero and Juno and the MyPoints loyalty rewards program. But it does have plenty of inventory and claims to reach a collective 100 million registered consumer accounts every month, and all it wants to do is get the highest yield for its placements.

On the path to greater yield optimization, Santo Criscuolo, SVP for the United Online Media Group, doesn’t want to hear about private marketplaces as the company begins placing its display inventory with OpenX’s Supply-Side Platform. Read the release.

“We gave OpenX our block list of advertisers we don’t want to do business with, but aside from that, we don’t want any limits on the competition for our inventory,” Criscuolo said. “While they may be right for some, as a midsize publisher, we don’t have a need for private marketplaces.”

Woodland Hills, Calif.-based United Online began looking for a new partner to help boost its yield about 18 months ago.

The company previously worked with PubMatic for several years. When it came time to re-evaluate its display strategy, United Online tested all three other Supply-Side Platforms’ services — though Criscuolo didn’t say, the other two most prominent SSPs aside from PubMatic are the Rubicon Project and Google’s AdMeld — and found that OpenX was able to deliver the highest yield.

Though the idea of “programmatic direct/guaranteed/reserved” has received a lot of attention from major publishers seeking to attract a clearer line of brand dollars, Criscuolo said publishers may be selling their inventory short by simply automating a traditional sales method. Ultimately, he contended, agreeing on a fixed price negotiated with a buyer in advance suggests insecurity on the part of sellers on how open marketplaces work.

“If I guarantee a so-called ‘premium placement,’ often there are other bidders who would have valued that inventory higher,” Criscuolo said. “We don’t want to box ourselves in on ad deals and we don’t want accept a price that seems right in advance when we could stand to attract higher CPMs later on.”

For one thing, it’s United Online’s general audience that makes this open-markeplace strategy appealing to it. For example, certain types of users who open NetZero’s start page may be more attractive in a real-time bidded environment. Unlike a site that draws a specific type of audience — like individuals interested in health and wellness going to WebMD or sports fans heading to ESPN’s digital properties — United Online’s users tend not to share a specific intent that advertisers can reliably build a target around in advance.

But just because it’s real-time focused doesn’t mean United Online is strictly focused on direct response and performance-based advertising.

“We definitely see brands advertising with us, and we choose only those that will pay the highest CPMs,” Criscuolo said. “Just because we don’t set all other kinds of controls in advance doesn’t mean that we’re solely interested in direct response. The point is, if I’m getting high CPMs from Ford Motors, it doesn’t matter if it’s direct or indirect from a network. If we let Ford and other brand advertisers compete for our placements, everybody wins.”

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