An Ecosystem of Publishers, a Community of Audiences

I’ve been thinking recently about how media site networks could be the answer to some questions facing behaviorally targeted Internet advertising, particularly regarding the issue of achieving scale.

The premise is simple enough: you just pull together groups of Web sites to make best use of aggregated audience behavior for targeting messages in a way that works for the publishers, the audience, and the advertisers.

If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be writing this column.

Looking for insights, I spoke with Nick Johnson, who heads strategy and business development for Revenue Science, about the development of behavioral networks.

Publishers Are the Key

“We want to get away from the term ‘network’ to refer to this approach, as networks have a reputation of focusing exclusively on reach,” said Johnson. “We think of it more along the lines of building out an ‘ecosystem’ of publishers with quality behavior.”

In his view, publishers are the key to making the model work successfully. They have the deepest behavioral data and bring both content and audiences.

“We have over 55 publishers signed up in the U.S. and U.K. that represent hundreds of Web sites and, more importantly, tens of millions of users,” he said. “For example, the third-party auto sites that we work with reach over 14 million in-market car buyers per month. This is a significant percentage of the total available market.

“We offer publishers the ability to leverage our technology to build targeted audience segments,” he continued. “The publishers sell their audiences and we work alongside of them to help create awareness and understanding of building appropriate segments. We realize the network is only as good as the publishers within it, so we ensure that we stay 100 percent aligned with them.”

Much time was invested early on to educate online publishers of behavioral targeting’s potential. Technology providers such as Revenue Science worked with publishers individually to make sense of behavioral targeting for them. They try to move beyond merely enabling them to add a behavioral component to sales proposals.

Scale on Tap

The network (or ecosystem) model connects publishers to one other and allows them to tap into scale when needed.

Last year, Johnson says, their business was all about yield-managing inventory for individual publisher partners on their own sites. This has changed.

For example, about two months ago, the company started working with Jumpstart Automotive Media, a third-party network rep firm that works with major auto sites such as eBay Motors, NADA Guides, Vehix.com, Automotive.com, and Consumer Guide Automotive to provide access to inventory in other places.

The partnership helps create revenue for established publishers that have already sold out inventory by plugging into niche, long-tail publisher sites and blogs, as well as others seeking incremental revenue.

This was the first step toward bringing major branded content and niche publishers together.

People, not Pages

Behavioral targeting networks in general, and Revenue Science in particular, approach this differently from, say, Google AdSense. For them, it’s not about targeting keywords in Web page content.

“AdSense is about the page, not the user,” said Johnson. “When a page has a keyword on it, it triggers an ad. It does this one page at a time. The next page is valued the same as the one preceding. Revenue Science technology targets the user, not the page, so we can value behaviors more accurately.”

To illustrate, he demonstrated how a sales executive could modify a proposal for an advertiser based on behavioral segments’ reach, relevance, or both. Using a selector, he could weight the proposal toward unique reach, impressions volume, or date range, as well as choose from among types of content or search rules.

What’s Next?

“We’re at a tipping point,” said Johnson. “Our publishing partners have the audiences and want to do something new to grow revenue.”

The publisher-centric ecosystem strategy is working well for Revenue Science. Business is very strong in certain categories, particularly finance and automotive. Trials of the service and renewals from existing clients are up. New publishers are enlisting in the international service.

Johnson says Fortune 500 advertisers are starting to lose some reluctance about trying behavioral targeting. Campaigns for those companies have markedly increased in Q3 and Q4 2005. Likewise, he believe increasingly more publishers will join as they see the business advantage such systems provide; enabling them to dynamically generate opportunities and to tap in to scale when needed.

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