PubForum Speaker Jon Burke, Ad Lead for Automattic, Dissects WordAds for WordPress
In late 2011 WordPress introduced a new way for traffic-driving bloggers to monetize their heavily read discourse: WordAds was meticulously developed from the ground up to best serve tens of millions WordPress authors through a partnership with indendent site-forcused ad network Federated Media.
As you might imagine, delivering relevant and appropriate advertising for a seemingly boundless assortment of topics is a Herculean task, but one that suited Automattic (WordPress' parent company) Ad Lead Jon Burke, who will detail the challenges of Creative Filtering With 70 Million Publishers next week at the AdMonsters Publisher Forum in Palm Springs. Before the event kicks off, we asked Burke for details around the genesis of WordAds and how the program is performing so far.
What was the impetus to develop the WordAds product? How did your experience prepare you to face this task?
It’s really been driven by the bloggers on WordPress.com. Many like how easy WordPress.com is to manage their sites and they also want the option to earn revenues. Many move to self-hosting on WordPress.org so that they have more flexibility to run ads.
I have a background both as a publisher with businesses like Red Herring and Chai Labs as well as a vendor for advertising companies like PubMatic. I also have had a personal blog that was one of the first sites represented by Federated Media, which it turns out is a primary partner for WordAds.
With WordAds, we are really optimizing various partners so my background as a vendor working with publishers helps me to understand how they think. In turn, my background as a publisher helps me to understand what motivates bloggers and where they might need help in understanding online advertising.
What have been the biggest challenges in setting up the program?
There are thousands of themes for WordPress and new ones are launched each week. A theme is the template that bloggers chose for their site. We have themes ranging from news-oriented sites to themes for a wedding blog. The biggest and most unique challenge for WordAds has been to customize themes so that they are ready for ad placements. We have a great technologist, Joen Asmussen, who led this effort working with our theme team and with our founder Matt Mullenweg to retrofit our themes with ad placements.
What do the initial results tell you about the program? What would you like to change going forward?
There has been exciting interest from bloggers. I think the reason is that we bring simplicity and trust to their interest in ads. Simplicity is under-appreciated. If you are a blogger and want to run ads, you have to self-host your site, launch an ad server, then a mobile ad server. Then you need to investigate, test and sign agreements with a variety of ad partners. If you want to run real-time bidding you need to be a large site. Then you need to track collections. With all that work, it’s really difficult for someone to have the time to publish.
The WordAds team enjoys both great engineers and experienced ads business people who can alleviate the workload of managing ads for the bloggers. Because bloggers have a lot of trust in WordPress.com and Automattic, they trust WordAds with their advertising to a degree that I don’t believe they would for most other advertising vendors. Also, because we have advertising scale with WordPress.com we can negotiate better rates for bloggers.
It’s a bit too soon to say what we would like to change, as we are just getting started. We have plans for ad units that are unique to WordPress.com. We have also heard from self-hosted sites on WordPress.org that they would like to work with WordAds so that is a big opportunity that we could address as well.
What steps are WordPress and Automattic taking to address growing mobile traffic?
Automattic has a mobile team that has built apps and makes sure that no matter the theme, sites like great in mobile. Mobile traffic on WordPress.com is still substantially lower than the web traffic, but given the growth rate it looks like it will catch up soon. We have been running ads in mobile for over a year now.
What do you see as the biggest challenge on the horizon for Automattic? How are you preparing to address it?
Automattic has grown to a point where we see more monthly uniques than even Yahoo!. Yet our headcount is 100 vs. Yahoo’s 13,000 employees. Automattic plans to ramp up our employees over the next year and forward, so a major challenge will be how to maintain what the first 100 people built as we expand.
Automattic has a unique hiring practice where we are a distributed company that doesn’t have any offices. Employees work around the world from home. This allows us to hire outstanding tech talent who don’t want to move to Silicon Valley or New York to earn a living. To manage this distributed workforce, Automattic has developed a number of day-to-day and annual practices that range from a large WordPress-powered Intranet to global meet-ups where teams get together for a week at a time to work together.
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