Purch CEO Greg Mason Focuses On Commerce To Compete For Marketer Dollars

Purch-Greg-MasonPurch CEO Greg Mason doesn’t see his company’s future in advertising.

Instead, he says Purch’s greatest business opportunity revolves around using content to drive commerce. By getting close enough to the point of sale to earn an affiliate fee or lead gen, he sees a way out in a market “where the traditional role of the publisher is tenuous.”

To build a company focused on “commerce facilitation,” as he calls it, Mason has embarked on an aggressive growth and repositioning effort since joining Purch three years ago. In 2014, Purch changed its name from TechMedia Network, and Mason has made six acquisitions as the head of the company.

And Purch, which includes Tom’s Guide, Top Ten Reviews, Live Science and other sites, in June raised $135 million in Series C funding for future growth.

Purch’s revenue already looks very different from that of most of its publishing competitors. Two-thirds comes from affiliate or lead generation, and only 20% from the traditional, RFP-led ad world. The remainder is produced by programmatic, which Purch optimized withRAMP, its custom header-bidding management system.

Purch’s acquisitions fall into two categories. Some were digital publishers with review or product sites where the user was likely to be researching a product, such as BestofMedia and AnandTech. They helped Purch transition from a network to owning 75% of its traffic, which tops 100 million unique visitors.

But the rest – the apps Consumr and ShopSavvy, B2B platform BuyerZone and cash-back membership site Active Junky – were technology acquisitions, designed to move Purch closer to the acquisition process.

Mason talked to AdExchanger about how Purch is gearing up for the current digital media climate.

AdExchanger: Other “content and commerce” approaches, like the one Lucky Magazine tried, haven’t worked out well for publishers. Why?

GREG MASON: This is a classic case of content companies that have done nothing more than put buy buttons on their pages. Gawker has positioned themselves as a content and commerce company. They tout some good numbers, but have done nothing more than put Amazon buy buttons on their pages.

The poster child was Thrillist. The reality was Thrillist and JackThreads were two completely different businesses. They used Thrillist as a marketing vehicle for JackThreads, but they were never brought together as unified entities, so it’s no surprise they split that up.

Purch raised $135 million in June last year, making it part of the investment trend in digital media. What’s your take what’s going on in the space?

The current climate reminds me of the late ’90s, when a lot of companies seemed to have ridiculous valuations and growth rates could never support the valuations. What adds to the stress is that these thousands of companies are competing for the 40 cents on the dollar not going to Google or Facebook.

Consequently, there are too many mouths to feed off too few dollars, regardless of how fast the dollars are flowing into the medium, which is a risk for anyone who is predominately dependent on brand dollars moving into the medium. The other dimension is that although there are brand dollars moving into the medium, even digital video is having to prove itself with some form of ROI metric. It’s one thing to sell a campaign. It’s another to renew a campaign.

Have you been able to improve monetization of your publisher acquisitions post-purchase?

It’s been substantial for Tom’s brands and AnandTech, in particular. AnandTech had no programmatic advertising on the site and no affiliate or referral links in the network. They were really undermonetized. That’s something we try to pursue when we make an acquisition of that nature. Because of our diversification of revenue, we have the highest revenue per thousand visits I know of. 

Purch has invested in technology, including with your header-bidding solution RAMP. How will that differentiate you in today’s publishing marketplace?

We were pretty early into the header-bidding landscape because we wanted to create more demand sources for our non-direct-sold inventory. As the result of the tech we’ve built, we saw 20 to 30% lift in eCPM for all that inventory. It was really a yield effort. We continue to develop the capabilities to adjust price floors and optimize inventory at scale and have an advanced team doing that. The next iteration of RAMP is being able to apply that to all revenue sources on the page, where it can dynamically optimize the marking messaging for the revenue lines, based on where we can make the most money.

Are you facilitating much mcommerce?

It’s developing. Nearly 50% of lead gen is coming from mobile, which is significant. In lead gen, 30% of traffic is mobile, and we buy a bit of SEM that is picked up off a mobile phone, and traffic is closer to 40% to 50% mobile. With mobile lead gen, things like click-to-call are taking off for us. Instead of passing qualified leads to the salesforce, you can call the salesperson and get the information you need.

Are you competing against Amazon?

I don’t think so. What Amazon is capturing with their advertising business is the flow of in-store co-op dollars moving to digital. I wish I could say we were competing for co-op dollars, but we aren’t. We do drive upward of nine figures in gross sales to Amazon on an annual basis through the “buy” button, but that actually has the least value of everything we do to earn revenue.

What are publishers doing wrong right now?

They are focusing on eyeballs. They are not focusing on engagement. That is a big change we are going to see going forward. Anyone can get eyeballs. You can do it through legit BuzzFeed ways or black-hat SEO, but audience is a commodity. Engagement is where the value is going forward. To drive the mindset around engagement, our thinking has moved to a service mindset. If you really hope to have meaningful engagement with or long-term loyalty to a publisher, you have to think, “What are the problems I can solve for a consumer?” That’s more of a software engineering mindset to publishing.

What’s your take on platforms like Facebook Instant Articles or Snapchat Discover, where publishers are increasingly going to find audiences?

It’s not that different from 10 to 15 years ago when portals controlled a lot of traffic. When publishers did business development deals to make content available in the context of the portal, the question was, “Are we giving them the keys to the kingdom?” I think some of the dynamics are similar. Portals are on the decline now and Google and Facebook are on the ascent. There is the need to expose content to consumers wherever they are congregating. We will be participating in Facebook Instant Articles. We are close to AMP. We are in Apple News. I like to think of it as aggressive experimentation. Every publisher has to participate in these emerging ecosystems.

How will publishers survive and thrive in today’s climate?

Because of the fragmentation in the ad market and the volume of companies competing for the pie overall, it’s imperative that publishers ask much harder questions of themselves, to define what genuinely makes their value prop unique for consumers and marketers. In our case, we’ve steered the development of our brands where there is a natural bridge to products and services, and we can attract a consumer base and that in-the-moment purchase intent.

Check out previous interviews with The AtlanticEvolve MediaForbesMicThe New York TimesThe Washington Post and Ziff Davis – and more to come.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting interview, I wonder how do pages such as this one: http://www.bestproducts.com/tech/gadgets/g217/top-portable-bluetooth-speakers/ answer the ‘What are the problems I can solve for a consumer?’ considering the majority of traffic to this page and similar pages come from queries such as ‘best bluetooth headphones’?

    I’d say you are inflating the onsite user engagement metrics, whilst also purposely extending a users journey to purchase for absolutely no benefit to the consumer.

    Also, wouldn’t you think that these consumers in-market for headphones may have some questions, perhaps ‘what features do I need to look out for’ / ‘what are the best bluetooth headphones for less than $100’ / ‘what brands should I look a’ / ‘what is the battery life like e.t.c

    In the above example I’d say that is a prime example of what users DO NOT want to see when they search Google, yet you are currently ranked 5th for that query.