Soaring Traffic Growth Signal Of Bigger Changes At The Atlantic

Bob Cohn AtlanticThe Atlantic is in a good spot right now.

The publisher had record traffic from September through November and it closed out the month with 31.5 million uniques and 75 million page views, according to its Adobe Analytics data.

The growth spurt came from a few key changes. A redesign in the spring made mobile pages load 50% faster, resulting in a one-third increase in mobile page views.

The Atlantic made other improvements the old-fashioned way: by hiring more writers to produce more stories. While The Atlantic magazine continues to publish monthly, the digital side moved into covering breaking news. Those stories have been some of the biggest traffic winners.

“There’s a certain DNA in what The Atlantic is and what it has been for 158 years. We can extract that DNA and put it into different platforms,” said Bob Cohn, president and COO of The Atlantic, a job that includes overseeing its print, digital, live events, video and consulting businesses.

Cohn talked with AdExchanger about how The Atlantic (part of Atlantic Media, which includes Quartz and various trade publications) is approaching the changing digital media landscape.

AdExchanger: How does The Atlantic ensure its print and digital businesses enable each other, not hold each other back?

BOB COHN: Having a so-called legacy business has been a huge asset for us. You can take the values of The Atlantic in a print magazine and build a digital website and an events business that embodies the values of the Atlantic brand. Having a magazine as the heart of what we do has permitted cross-platform interaction, editorially and commercially, which is distinct [from digital-only publications].

We do a lot of packages, editorially and commercially, that are on more than one platform. The [digital version of the] story from two months ago about mass incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates included several videos and video animation and we had a full-day event with five underwriters, “Race and Justice in America,” that was derived from the cover story. These are strengths, not weaknesses.

The Atlantic was one of the first publications using Facebook Instant Articles when it launched in May. How did you decide to participate?

When Facebook first approached us more than a year ago, we decided to be experimental and platform-agnostic. We knew it could have an impact on our site, but we also knew it could open up new opportunities, allowing us to monetize off-site on the Facebook platform and finding new audiences. When Apple News came around a few months after, the decision was already made. We’re working with Google on the AMP product too, which should roll out early next year. We think we would be foolish to not be open to change. But we’re pretty self-aware that any one of these things could impact the audience on the site, or the ability to bring in revenue.

How are those platforms changing what it means to be a digital media company? 

It used to be that you owned your content and you owned your reader. First, to drive traffic to their sites, publishers started trying to appeal to the platforms, and maybe losing a sense of themselves. Then, with the platforms becoming distribution behemoths, content unbundled. Pieces of content could go viral that was disaggregated from the bundle. If the platforms continue to succeed as distributors, not just driving traffic to us, but being the locus – the publisher, in effect – we need to look at alternative monetization strategies. These are fairly wrenching changes happening at a rapid clip in our industry.

This year has seen lots of investment rounds and M&A in the publishing world. Does that make you want to participate yourself?

We’re a relatively small company compared to the M&A activity all around us, and it’s easy to get jealous of $10 million, $50 million infusions, because there’s a lot you can do with that money. At The Atlantic, we are making a profit each year. We’re not investing for future business success because we’re having that success right now even as we continue to grow. You look around and see a lot of frenetic activity. That can be alluring, but we feel good that we’re living within our means and succeeding using discipline and rigor.

With banner advertising on the decline, how is The Atlantic thinking about alternatives to box ads, the mainstay of digital advertising?

Native went from a dip-a-toe-in-the-water experiment to the backbone of our business in the past few years. It’s now involved in 60% of campaigns we have on The Atlantic, and in most cases it’s driving those sales. A brand might spend $500,000, and $150,000 is native and $350,000 is in boxes and banners. Our branded content shop, Re:think, hired Jim Gaines in May, the former managing editor at People, Time and Life. We have made it an important part of the business.

How are you using data now? What do you want to with data in the future?

2016 will be an important year for us in understanding data and using it commercially to segment our audiences, so we can go to advertisers with more narrow slices, and also for editorial purposes. We want to be in the position to serve you content based on what you’ve read on the site.

What’s The Atlantic’s position on programmatic?

We’ve had programmatic ads on the site for at least a couple of years. We’ve gotten more aggressive about it over the past year. We are participating in the private exchanges, and see a lot of value in programmatic direct. It continues to be a small share of the advertising pie, but growing because you can move up the value chain, and do direct-sold programmatic.

How do you structure your sales organization?

What we’ve determined works best for us is having a media sales team selling digital and print, based out of New York. Programmatic is part of the media team, and we have a head of programmatic. We have a separate team for Atlantic Live that’s based in Washington. There’s a lot of collaboration and cross-platform selling. We are increasingly involved in approaching foundations to support our more ambitious journalism.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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