Vox Media Embraces Programmatic For Its Scaled-Up Audience

Joe Purzycki Vox MediaTwo years is a long time for online publisher Vox Media. In that span, the owner of seven editorial sites – including The Verge, SB Nation, Eater and Polygon – went from eschewing programmatic to embracing it.

Vox’s strategy changed because its sites grew, explained Joe Purzycki, Vox Media’s VP of advertising.

Vox totaled 20 million monthly uniques two years ago. Today it has 150 million global uniques, and has added four additional sites.

The demographics of Vox shifted with that growth. The target audience used to be 18- to 34-year-old males. Now, the gender split is narrowing, although the brand still indexes unusually high in education and household income. That broader audience created the need for Vox to start using a data-management platform and sell advertising based on its first-party data.

Purzycki talked to AdExchanger about the changes Vox has undergone in its monetization strategy over the past couple of years and what’s ahead.

AdExchanger: Why has Vox embraced programmatic, when two years ago it was so firmly in the direct sales camp?

JOE PURZYCKI: At that time, we had just introduced [gaming site] Polygon, and were still focused on that male 18-34 audience. We had a smaller audience, and our direct sales efforts were driving our business.

Today, given size of audience and amount of inventory, programmatic is a growing piece of our strategy. We still rely heavily on direct sales, which is where the majority of revenue is coming from.

We pair our direct efforts with our programmatic efforts. That can be through private exchanges, if that’s what our clients want to do. Or, if our direct team is selling larger sponsorships or branded content series, with those larger formats that aren’t available through programmatic yet, we work with clients to do both that and buy fluid media through programmatic channels to support their direct sales buy.

How much of your programmatic is invite-only?

It depends. With our larger clients, we’re working on a direct basis in terms of a programmatic strategy. But we are open to larger conversations with clients who just want to talk about plugging into programmatic. There’s no one buying solution that’s good for all our clients, so we work with them on a one-to-one basis.

All this is controlled through our direct sales force. Our direct sales force is also our programmatic sales force, which we think is right now the best strategy. It helps eliminate cross-channel conflict, and it’s been a smart choice for us.

Are you doing programmatic direct as well as private exchanges?

We are leaning more towards programmatic direct at the moment. We have a few clients that we have an exchange model set up with covering a handful of inventory. We’re playing both at this point, but in terms of the deals we have in place, it’s leaning [heavily] toward programmatic direct.

Programmatic direct promises to eliminate the hassle of insertion orders. Is it actually doing that right now?

It’s not 100% seamless yet. I think all three parties – the agencies, clients and publishers – are still finding their footing. Some of our clients and agency partners are much further along than others, and in those cases, the ease of the transaction is getting better. Outside of that, there is still some hand-holding with other clients, and it’s still a bit manual.

Over the past 12 months there’s been a vast improvement in the ease of the transaction. We’ve been our side doing things to facilitate that as well. We recently moved to DFP [DoubleClick for Publishers] to more easily plug into the buy side.

What were you using before DFP?

We were using OpenX, which is still a partner with us on the exchange side, but we moved our ad serving over to DFP.

Are you doing any sales based on first-party data?

It’s going on 99% of plans. For the majority of our partners, that kind of data and insights is incredibly valuable. At 150 million unique users, we have enough scale that we can go after these very specific audience, and not just on one specific site, but across our entire platform, all seven properties.

We sit on a wealth of first-party data that we mine internally. Outside of that, we did see the need for a DMP to help us in those efforts, so we’ve been working with Krux for about the past six to seven months to look at third-party data and better understand our audience through insights that aren’t necessarily first-party, but that were third-party. That’s uncovered interesting things for us.

We look at sites like The Verge, where we find technology influencers, and the in-market shoppers for mobile phones, for example, through our first-party data. We have traffic data and registration data, since 25% of our audience registers to comment and post to the site.

What Krux allows us to do is provide another layer to that, which might specifically be parents who are using Android devices. It’s really a marrying of our first-party and third-party data, to really smartly target audiences that our partners are going after.

What’s the interest you’re getting from advertisers in using these segments? What kind of feedback have you gotten about performance?

What we’re seeing is exactly what we would hope, mainly in terms of interaction rates and click-through rates, CTR being a little less important to the advertising we’re doing, which is more interaction-based. There are performance upticks of 3-4%, depending on the ad unit. We’re happy with the results to date, and we’ll continue to keep experimenting with data both for more insights and performance.

What are you doing with video?

Video’s been a big part of strategy. When we look at Vox Media as a whole, we want to blur the lines. We don’t want to be defined as just a publisher, we also want to be considered a broadcaster.

If you look at Eater, we launched with two video programs. We have partners signed up for The Verge and SB nation. As much as possible, we want our readers to be viewers. We’re serving 100 million unique video views a month across our video player and YouTube.

We’re also utilizing our YouTube footprint, looking to extend our reach there as well as on social in general. We’re currently actively working with YouTube to monetize inventory. Where it makes sense, we are extending campaigns there, be it custom video content we’re creating for a brand, or monetizing that inventory on The Verge channel.

We look at it as a controlled environment, where it very much is The Verge brand, just on a different platform. YouTube has been a great partner to extend our brand and content reach.

Are you doing anything on the sponsored content side?

We have introduced a 360 creative agency called Vox Creative. One thing we do as a publisher is tell great stories and attract audiences to those stories. What we wanted to do with Vox Creative was help our partners tell great stories.

We’re doing an ongoing series with Comcast with different segments. For BP, we’ve created “The Next Mile,” which includes long-form, video and infographics. This is all content created in collaboration with BP and with Vox Creative.

We have ad-served placements for sponsored content, and target across our platform of seven sites. What we’re seeing in engagement, the metric we pride ourselves on as a publisher, is heads above our competitors. Why would you do a listicle when you can do something like this? We’ve found that substance is viral, and people want to share great things.

Can you tell me a bit about the custom ad units you’re doing?

We built 200 of one of our custom units last year. They are responsive, and 90% of people buy them cross-platform. We are also rotationally ad-serving these units on our article pages, not just on our home pages. We can also use data to smartly target these units.

We are seeing 12x the CTR with our custom units, 45% universal interaction rate, a 15x interaction rate over our standard media, and using Moat data, a 72% hover rate.

The reality is that viewability is becoming more and more important to our advertisers, and we’re designing and testing all of our advertising with viewability in mind.

We think these bigger, larger units have a place on the web for brand advertising, and to help brands tell their story outside of more content-based initiatives.

Are you using data at all to target these units?

The first iteration of this was very much home page takeover. Once we had that project completed, and saw partners liked them, it made sense to extend the life of these units. Why not extend the life of these units if we’re going to build them? Instead of three separate 24-hour takeovers for a two-month campaign, we run them rotationally across our pages for sustainment purposes for brand uplift and interaction. That’s something we rolled out in the past four months. We can reach technology influencers, whether they’re on Polygon, Vox.com or SBNation.

We say here that we’re “data-informed.” Data-informed is a step back from data-driven. It’s being smart getting your brand message in the right place at the right time. In our case, what we think a lot about too is finding the right creative outlet.

What are you most excited about that’s in the works at Vox Media?

We acquired the Curbed network in November of last year, and just brought Eater onto our technology platform. Next will be Racked, and then Curbed.

Racked is even a bigger step towards a balanced audience. Right now our audience is a 60-40 split [between men and women], I see a lot of opportunity with what we’re doing on the brand advertising side in the fashion and lifestyle space for Racked, and with Curbed as a destination for home.

Vox.com, which we launched in April, has grown incredibly fast. It’s No. 2 in the politics and news category, and quickly approaching No. 1 with 22 million uniques. I’m excited about the opportunity that brings us in the general news category, and the partners we can work with that are looking to target folks in the general news category.

What will do from an advertising standpoint is stay flexible. We’re constantly tweaking our programmatic offerings, constantly working on our brand advertising offerings, and making them smarter. We’re well-positioned to have next year be a really big year for us.

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