Picture This: A Conversation About Today’s In-Image Advertising Strategies

Sascha Weis and Rich Reiter of Corbis Weigh In

The challenge for digital publishers, in a nutshell: Keep your business profitable enough to continue producing quality content, via an ad-supported model… while acknowleding users’ awareness of, and frequent resistance to, being advertised to… while also confronting advertisers’ increasing hesitancy to pay for any ad space users can’t see easily… without getting in the way of users’ ability to consume the content they want.

Running that obstacle course, any chance publishers have to solve more than one of those problems at once is probably worth pursuing. And for Corbis, a company known to many publishers for its extensive image licensing services, there’s real promise in allowing its publisher partners to gain revenue through in-image advertising. Corbis partnered with NetSeer, using NetSeer’s technology to deliver targeted, contextually relevant ads over images. I wanted to find out what goals Corbis was aiming for in this business partnership with NetSeer, not to mention what Corbis’ publisher partners were getting out of it, so I took some time to talk with Sascha Weis, Corbis’ SVP, Global Images Sales, and Rich Reiter, Corbis’ Business Development Director, Digital. Here’s what they had to say.

More Images. More Revenue. Monetizing the Visual Web

BRIAN LaRUE: How did the relationship between Corbis and NetSeer come about? What problems were you trying to solve?

SASCHA WEIS: We saw an opportunity in bringing publishers together, connecting them with our content, and assuring that with NetSeer’s technology, that content gets a contextual ad on it.

Over the years Corbis has moved more and more into branded entertainment, which means we’re engaged a lot with brands directly. I’ll give you an example. A couple of years ago we acquired the product placement agency Norm Marshall and Associates. They are responsible for taking the Aston Martin out of a James Bond movie and putting in a BMW, for example. Through this relationship with brands, we are now doing more celebrity setup shots. Corbis, with Splash, produces 15,000 celebrity images every day. We can take that picture of a celebrity on the red carpet, on the street, very authentic, and put that picture on our publisher’s website. So for instance, Bulgari has an endorsement deal with January Jones. January Jones is shot by Splash, and she’s wearing a Bulgari bag. And at the same time, you could see a Bulgari ad appearing on the image.

BL: So her name simply becomes one of the targeting criteria?

SW: Exactly.

We give publishers a compelling subscription deal for our content by volume. NetSeer monetizes that content through ads. So we’re creating a situation for any digital publisher where they can have our content, basically at better price points than they ever had before. We can bring down pricing by 30%, if there’s a publisher that has a $100,000 annual subscription deal for unlimited access to our content. Then we share the ad revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They basically make money out of this relationship, rather than paying for the content, because the revenue they’re generating from advertising makes up for the cost of the content. At the bottom line, we’re paying them, rather than them paying us.

Pictures are driving the audience and driving engagement. We have the chance to monetize that real estate by putting an ad on it that is not intrusive. And the publisher makes money off of it. There’s no Catch-22 in this, for the consumer, for the publisher or for us as a content supplier.

And I think this is just the starting point. There are a lot of ideas we’re developing around in-image advertising — video, galleries — that can really help a publisher in creating content and telling stories.

BL: You’d given some examples where you explicitly had a celebrity pictured with a product.

SW: Which the celebrity is already endorsing.

BL: What about if you’re trying to target for a product or brand that is not in the image?

SW: Baby Bjorn, which is a carrier for babies — we’re not targeting celebrities using the Baby Bjorn product in the photo. We create lists of celebrities who are pregnant. And that ad would become way more native, compelling and engaging for consumers.

We give advertisers group categories. A group category of celebrities that are associated with organic food might relate to Whole Foods. Gucci wants to target that content around fashion-oriented celebrities.

BL: You’ve mentioned the ease for publishers of uploading your images, eventually entire galleries and videos. But content teams can take a lot of pride in their original content and like to hang on to editorial autonomy. So I’m curious how this relationship works with your publisher partners.

SW: It’s a good point. The resistance from publishers around in-image advertising was quite strong a couple of years ago, when it was really seen as an editorial aggression to put an ad on an image. That has changed over the last two years. Now you have companies like American Media, CBS Interactive, Time Inc., that have all signed deals with in-image advertising companies.

Now, the publishing audience is very supportive of putting ads onto images, because they understand it’s not intrusive, and they’re not losing audience. All the publishers we work with are doing their testing, which shows the audience is staying engaged. And the publisher has full control. We can fill up to 100% of the content on their site, but if they don’t want that, then we fill it at a different rate. Really large publishers that were shutting the door a year and a half ago are opening it wide now, and we’ve signed very, very large agreements with some significant names.

BL: Did you see anything in particular that triggered that shift for publishers toward in-image?

RICH REITER: Viewability. If pictures are what people are viewing most, if people are clicking deeper into slideshows, and the ad is relevant and non-obtrusive, it increases viewability.

The digital publishing ecosystem is so challenged and so disrupted right now that the editors know they must cooperate with ad ops, unless they want 17 different ad tech partners putting ads on tons of different places. Also, a lot of the real estate is being taken away. Ad ops have fewer places to put an ad. So we have now created additional inventory that’s relevant, that encourages users to not only maintain but increase their consumption. You can track on the page and see, with the ad on the photo, the viewability of the content is up.

BL: The one-and-a-half to two-year ballpark entirely goes along with the demand for viewability.

RR: It goes back to your first question: What problem are we trying to solve? In the most basic way, we’re trying to be a part of the solution as opposed to a problem. The problem is that digital publishers are under a lot of distress. So if we can bundle these things together and provide them with a revenue-generating solution, then that’s a win-win for everybody.

BL: Have you been doing much work with NetSeer or any other in-image advertising services aside from celebrity images?

SW: Yes. Celebrities are fairly straightforward. You’ll always have their name in the metadata, so targeting-wise, that makes it very easy. With NetSeer’s technology, we can monetize any image on a publishing website. If this is an image from an agency from South Africa that we have nothing to do with, NetSeer can still read the metadata, understand the concept of the site and put the right ad on it.

The NetSeer technology also has an ability to create a blacklist, where certain content is not monetized. Take CBS Interactive. They have certain news sites where they talk about the war in Iraq. They don’t want to monetize that kind of content, and no advertiser wants to be on those images.

RR: NetSeer’s overall architecture looks at the URL, the text, the metadata, and it takes an overall weighted algorithm to say, what is this article about? From a targeting point of view, there’s more than just five pieces of metadata.

We’re working with some other agencies — for instance, a visitor convention bureau from a Florida beach, and they only want pictures of beaches. Beaches with palm trees. Beaches with palm trees and suns. Your available inventory starts to shrink. But we can do that, and it makes it for an incredibly valuable piece of real estate when we get that granular. You just have to imagine your total available number of images get more limited the narrower you bring down the targeting.

BL: What kind of factors can publishers control in this relationship?

RR: It depends on how much the publisher wants to get involved. If a large staff really wants to get hands-on, it can come down to whether it’s a static or animated banner, whether the ad is it transparent or opaque. If that’s more than they want to deal with, NetSeer has account managers who will optimize it, set it up and just let it run. But the depth of brand safety controls that are built into it are huge.

SW: Advertising is changing so much, becoming more embedded, where products are no longer really surrounding content, but they’re part of the content. You see that in TV; you see that in movies. No one’s watching TV the traditional way, with commercial breaks. You’re going on Netflix and you’re seeing a commercial-free series. Embedded product placement, we feel, is the future for advertising.

BL: Native placements are really what advertisers want. But at the same time, users are so aware of when they’re being advertised to. It makes user experience important to consider. What do you say about that?

SW: If you see an image of George Clooney somewhere, as a consumer you don’t feel that a Nespresso ad is intrusive. This is almost like a given, because this guy is endorsing Nespresso. I think that the audience, consumers and myself, we are educated enough that we feel when an ad makes total sense. Especially when I can read the article, I can view the image.

BL: Is in-image advertising a way around ad blocking? I’ve seen conflicting statements on this.

RR: Yes and no. It’s so nascent, ad blocking doesn’t happen just one way. Our hope and understanding is that a lot of times, being placed over the photo, it does not get blocked. But there are still so many different kinds of ad blocking happening.

BL: What else is coming down the road for you in in-image?

SW: We are in the process of building a very strong publishing network. We consider all of these publishers strategic partners. We’re not just their ad tech partners, we’re also their content partners.

Our longer-term focus is to bring brands and advertisers more into the conversation with publishers, and then use the NetSeer technology in monetizing that content.

It’s a very attractive revenue model for the publishers. And it has a high amount of brand safety in it, because we’re working together with the brand on creating that content.