Wordy Web Triumvirate Revamps Sites, Embraces Direct Ad Sales

For a decade, their allure lied almost solely in their sheer verbosity. Now the virtual visages of Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com and Reference.com have been titivated to inveigle more logophiles and meliorate advertising integration. S.A.T.-grade vocabulary aside, Lexico Publishing Group, the publisher of the Web resource triad, is strengthening its focus on selling customized ad offerings, and relying less on ad networks.

“We’re trying to attract new users and retain our current base,” explained Lexico Publishing Group CEO Brian Kariger. The refurbished sites, created in conjunction with Web design outfit Happy Cog, were unveiled in beta late last month and will officially launch in the next few days.

The sites mainly attract the 18- to 24-year-old student crowd as well as the 35- to 42-year-old professional at-work demographic. Despite the targeted educated audience visiting the sites, users over the years often have been served mass market ads, like the ones prompting them to seek out old schoolmates or guess the name of a celebrity.

Lexico is looking to change that. Bolstering its sales force will help. “We’re a little behind on scaling up our staff to meet the opportunity,” admitted Kariger, “but we’re looking to do that in the next year or so.” Directly-sold ads make up almost half of the sites’ sales now, according to Kariger, who added, “We see the future in direct relationships.” Three people work on the sales staff currently, and Lexico is considering outsourcing some sales to an independent sales rep agency in future.

The publisher stresses it is not looking to cease its relationships with ad networks. Although selling direct allows the firm to develop more customized ad products that yield higher revenues, it’s the networks that free up time and manpower to “let us focus our efforts on selling targeted ad solutions,” commented Kariger.

Ad quality, however, can be a network-related bugbear. “It’s always nicer to opt into an ad than have to opt out of it,” explained Director of Advertising Sales Dennis Kariger. The company currently sells inventory through Advertising.com, Tribal Fusion and Google, as well as Revenue Science’s and Tacoda’s behaviorally-targeted networks.

The sites promoted a sweepstakes campaign for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Oliver Twist DVD in January, and may feature ads for the upcoming Da Vinci Code DVD, according to Lexico’s Director of Marketing Jasper Chou. Developing special promotions directly with Sony, he said, “has allowed us to continue to work with them on other projects.”

An especially relevant campaign for IFC Films’ word puzzler flick, Wordplay, featured ads on Dictionary.com’s Crossword Puzzle page and in its Word of the Day e-mail newsletter, which is sent to 850,000 subscribers each day.

The three sites garner about 20 million unique visitors each month, about 30 percent of whom are from outside the U.S. A more robust word translation feature will now help Lexico target ads based on language, “so users can experience something better than a public service ad that would show up [otherwise],” explained Dennis Kariger.

The publisher also offers advertisers keyword-driven ads targeted to definition pages. For instance, a campaign for consumer health media company RealAge set to launch in Q4 of this year will include ads served to definition pages for words like “cosmetic surgery” and “anti-aging.” The keyword targeting also functions in the more traditional manner, prompting ads when users conduct Web-wide searches through the three sites. Using 24/7 RealMedia’s ad serving platform, Lexico can also target ads to students accessing the sites through .edu domains, and based on zip codes and other geographic data.

Video is also in the works. The publisher is hoping to sell video ads direct, in addition to the Google AdSense video ads that have run on its sites. It also may add ad-supported video content correlated to words and reference topics.

Job classifieds site Monster.com, an advertiser currently running ads throughout the Lexico sites, targets users looking to “spark up their resumes” with unusual words, Dennis Kariger said. Search sites like Dogpile and MSN Search have also advertised, aiming to reach the publisher’s knowledge-hungry audience “who have a knack for wanting to get more and more information,” he added. Lexico worked with Avenue A/Razorfish to sell the Dogpile ads, and is working with Universal McCann, GoFish Media, Leapfrog Online and other agencies to help woo top tier advertisers.

Dictionary.com features content from Houghton Mifflin Company’s American Heritage Dictionary and other dictionaries. Thesaurus.com serves up synonyms from Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus, and Reference.com includes information from encyclopedias such as Crystal Reference Encyclopedia and Columbia and University Press’s The Columbia Encyclopedia.

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