Files published in Portable Document Format aren't the most plentiful pages on the Web, but they represent a pretty large available audience. Adobe says it has distributed approximately 500 million Acrobat readers globally, which are used to read everything from archived versions of print magazines to regional newsletters to instruction manuals. Now the software giant is eager to determine whether the documents can join in the digital advertising jamboree that's powered so much other free content.
In a deal with Yahoo, Adobe has begun offering publishers the ability to monetize their PDF files with contextually targeted text ads. While it admits ignorance regarding the size of the market opportunity for such ads or their ideal surroundings, a beta program launched today aims to get some of those answers. IDG InfoWorld, Wired, Pearson's Education, Meredith Corporation, and Reed Elsevier are among the first to offer up their subscription and legacy PDF formatted content for free under the test.
"We don't know which [content types] will dominate," said Kurt Garbe, Adobe's entrepreneur in residence, advertising. "We've looked at a cross-section during the pre-beta. Certainly the reprint market is a very big potential market."
Ads will appear in a side bar to the right of PDF content in a manner similar to search ads. Yahoo will sell the placements on a CPC basis and split the revenue with Adobe and the individual publisher. The program is limited to U.S. publishers with English language content, and these will be able to use Yahoo's ad management system to track impressions and response rates.
Yahoo advertisers will not know when their ads appear next to PDF content, but Josh Jacobs, VP for publisher solutions at Yahoo, said the company will consider allowing advertisers to opt out of the format or to specifically target readers of PDF documents.
"A big goal of the beta program for both of us is to gain more insight into how users are engaging with this," said Jacobs. "We'll continue to look at whether there are other types of creative and ad placements that make sense."
The move further expands Yahoo's ad network holdings, which were recently bolstered by its acquisition of Blue Lithium.
Advertising in PDF documents is not new, but Adobe's Garbe observed the practice has historically resembled print more than digital advertising.
"People are advertising today in PDF," he said. "It's just that they're doing it in the static, old-fashioned way of defining a space, creating an ad, selling the ad space."
As the beta test progresses and -- in theory at least -- enters general availability, Adobe will do more to promote the service to publishers, including possibly recruiting publishers within the Acrobat software interface. He added Adobe and Yahoo would likely test richer ad formats as well, but he added the pace of experimentation will depend on the willingness of publishers to migrate from subscription to ad-supported models.
Should the market for ads in PDF files prove lucrative, the question remains whether a software provider such as Adobe can maintain its position as a middleman between publishers and advertisers, or whether it will be excluded as the producers of Web browsers largely have been.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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