Answers.com, long a haven of performance marketers seeking scale and efficiency, has bigger dreams: to create enough value for advertisers to seek it out for direct sales.
The publisher, which reaches 73 million unique users on desktop and 35 million on mobile, first added a direct sales arm in 2013. But its efforts to establish more direct relationships with buyers are taking off, now that there’s a programmatic stepping stone in between direct and RTB: private marketplaces.
“Programmatic plays to our strengths,” said Toby McKenna, SVP of direct advertising sales. “We have great reach and scale for advertisers to overlay with data. I came on board because we wanted to diversify the revenue, grow it from a direct sales standpoint.”
She decided the best way to grow direct was through private marketplaces, which would allow Answers.com to grow CPMs while allowing advertisers to bring their data in.
Revenue from private marketplaces increased 120% from December to January, and another 82% from January to February.
Its always-on private deals with DSPs and trading desks more than doubled in January and February. Answers.com built connections with 20 DSPs and trading desks in total.
To justify advertisers’ increased spending, Answers.com has focused on bringing the performance of private marketplaces in line with open marketplaces (something other publishers are dealing with, too). “Some PMPs were performing the same as open [exchanges] from a CPC/CPM standpoint,” McKenna said.
Optimization for private marketplaces relies on the buyers, not sellers. Answers.com account reps must communicate decisions that will yield better performance, including insights on if the user is on mobile or desktop, the types of ad placements or where she is in session. “We know how our site performs better than anyone else,” McKenna said.
Private marketplaces blind sellers in another way: Because advertisers buy based on their own data, it can be difficult for sellers to figure out how many of them “match” with their readers. One campaign with a $70,000 budget went virtually unspent because the brand’s users weren’t on Answer.com’s site.
To head off this problem, McKenna instructs the sales team to pose questions to prospective advertisers about the overlay targeting and the ad units, “so we have a better understanding at the onset if we’re going to perform, and do we have the match rate, fill and backend metrics to support it,” she said.
Once the data and optimization is finely tuned, advertisers can reap the rewards. After moving an insurance advertiser from RTB to private marketplaces, Answers.com was able to increase CTR 800% and decrease its CPC 80%. The insurance advertiser paid more, but it received more value by gaining first-look access to the best-performing placements.
For an advertiser like an insurer, Answers.com can provide great context – right next to users’ questions about insurance. But that usefulness can be cluttered by less helpfulanswers, recycled “lean back” listicles and a heavy ad load. Many pages run over 10 ads, with 50 to 70 tags visible via Ghostery. For direct sales clients, Answers.com is working on creating pages with lighter ad loads.
It also runs ads that give off good performance signals, but for the wrong reasons.Answers.com runs below-the-fold, autoplay video banner ads. Though more than 50% in view, they load with the right side cut off. A user who wants to pause the video – to turn off the sound, let’s say – ends up clicking through, because Answers.com’s page cuts off the buttons on the player.
Brands like Staples and Maybelline ran video in those placements before the same piece ofAnswers.com content. Each page view cycled through multiple video ads.
Answers.com downplayed the presence of such ad units. “At this point, we don’t have a ton of video content with pre-roll and a ton of autoplay,” McKenna said. It said it puts user experience first. As for that specific unit? “We are in the process of reevaluating ad units and placements on the site,” she said.
In a way, Answers.com’s focus on data and performance makes it sound more like an advertiser than a publisher.
“We have a scientific way of doing things,” McKenna said, comparing Answers.com to previous employer Priceline. “We test everything, we learn and we change our partners frequently. The company is very sophisticated in understanding the value of consumer – not just when they click through, but the lifetime value.”
The publisher most resembles a specific type of advertiser: one that values results over brand metrics. And it’s this very advertiser that will now pay more via programmatic, as long as it comes with a better ROI, giving Answers.com momentum as it reaches for bigger, better budgets.