If you want to hear about real-life examples of how a historic, trusted but largely regional publication can adapt to and thrive in digital, Ray Faust is one of those people you’d want to talk to. The VP, National and Emerging Sales at the Star Tribune Media Company helped lead the charge into programmatic on the digital properties of this Twin Cities newspaper. By his account, that programmatic push opened up previously unforeseen potential for the Star Tribune’s inventory, because it allowed advertisers to buy the publication’s audience, not just their websites.
Beyond that, Faust has explained, taking a holistic approach to the Star Tribune’s inventory has allowed the publication to better discover and value demand. That full understanding of demand helped push up CPMs across the board, including in direct sales, the bread and butter of so many legacy regional publications.
Faust took some time to tell AdMonsters Senior Editor Gavin Dunaway more about how that holistic yield strategy works in practice for the Star Tribune.
GAVIN DUNAWAY: Do you feel like programmatic is having a real downward impact on your CPMs?
RAY FAUST: No. We embraced a holistic yield strategy a long time ago and have become very programmatically adept. Programmatic facilitates ads on our site that we wouldn’t normally be able to get.
We’re a single, local-market publisher. Almost the entirety of my direct sales is done through local advertisers. So programmatic opens up doors for global, national, non-Minnesota-based advertisers. They’re not buying our site — they’re buying impressions to be in front of our users. It’s a different pool of demand. They’re also going to pay what we feel is a fair rate. So having that demand is important, and having differentiated demand is important.
GD: How do you make sure that you’re seeing differentiated demand?
RF: It comes down to having a pool of partners that we tap into. We work with AdX and virtually every other programmatic entity, whether it’s direct or indirect through other partners. It’s fair to say that every demand side platform is not plugged into every SSP. We just want to make sure we cover the bases.
GD: Does that mean now that your indirect channels are competing with your direct channels?
RF: They are.
A while ago, we realized that our way of thinking about our inventory on the direct side and on the programmatic side was very siloed. And if you think of the entire ecosystem as being integrated, what difference does it make if I’m able to deliver an impression to a programmatic buyer at a $30 CPM, versus a priority local campaign at a $5 CPM? I want to facilitate demand at the highest price point possible, because my direct sales will effectively lift up as well.
GD: I’m going to guess that since you embraced a holistic yield strategy, your revenue has in fact gone up.
RF: It’s been a big driving force in our growth. We moved to DFP Premium back in October of 2012, when we effectively put forth the “best price first” strategy, and the impact to our digital revenue has been very material. We’ve doubled our ECPMs across the board since that time.
GD: Are you facing any challenges you can share?
RF: We’re always working on what’s going to move the needle for our advertisers. We’ve done some things in native. On a direct sales side, it’s operationally inefficient to do a higher volume of that work. That being said, we have opportunity to deliver native, so that’s where we were able to plug in with TripleLift, to get that differentiated demand. We’re in a performance marketing environment, so I’ve worked with virtually every partner. I’m a big believer in learning from partners.
GD: How are you judging that performance?
RF: Everybody hates click-through, but that ultimately is a big factor. Unique reach is something else we look at.
We’ve built a fairly sophisticated digital services business. A lot of what we’re doing in performance marketing is outside of our owned and operated inventory. When it comes to true unique reach, being a programmatic buyer helps us in a far greater way. These are customers who do business with us because we’re the largest website in the Upper Midwest, and our brand has a ton of value, and the solutions that are in our portfolio are impactful and unique. But being able to then talk about data and insights on top of it really rounds things out.
GD: So with programmatic native, let’s say I’m a publisher; I’m thinking about dipping my toes into those waters. What’s the first thing you would tell me?
RF: First of all, you’ve got to have content. “Programmatic native” sounds great—but what’s your story? If there’s enough content to tap into, the conversation right away goes way beyond impressions and ad units and sponsorships. You’re talking about the entire marketing strategy. If you can talk to advertisers about how they want to connect with their potential customer, generally speaking you’re having conversations that make you very essential.
GD: Are there other ways that you’ve addressed ad blocking, particularly around creative? Are you leaning more on native?
RF: I think native can be a big help when it comes to ad blocking. I do believe that native ads can help dampen some of that intrusiveness blockers see in advertising. At the end of the day, ads are content. If you render creative that has value and is informative, that can soften users’ potential pushback. I have yet to see a native ad that’s been a pop-up or an auto-play, sound-on overlay.
We really try to not inundate users with ad units. I want to make lots of money on the ads that we run; I just don’t need to run tons of ads for ads’ sake.
GD: Have you actually cut down on ad placements, or have you just switched to different sizes?
RF: We deployed lazy loading several months ago, which essentially allows for ads to be rendered when that part of the page is in view. Has that cut our inventory? It sure has. But it’s actually improved our performance on a direct basis. It’s had some impact to my indirect revenue, but virtually every impression on our site has the potential to be viewed.
For a site like ours, the path to success largely is about direct sales. So when it comes to things like viewability, everything I’ve just told you benefits the direct sales opportunity. What we haven’t quite done a ton of yet is to sell into those sorts of platforms with our digital services business. That would probably be the next step for us.
GD: Do you feel like the amount of advertisers in programmatic native is diversifying?
RF: Definitely. And I’m seeing very good brands. There’s not a ton of demand rendering on our page all the time. But there’s some demand coming through from Mariott, which I hadn’t seen before aside from maybe a retargeting campaign.
Ad quality has been great. The brands have been strong. That’s all you could ever ask for.