The Accelerator: Condé Nast tries its hand at social ads

Social is the new search, but many publishers are then left with heaps of traffic they can’t make money from.

Condé Nast is attempting to solve that problem with The Accelerator, a platform that predicts when a story is going to blow up and enables advertisers to exploit it. The Accelerator has been in use for the past year by Wired and sibling pub Ars Technica, the latter of which created the platform. It looks at metrics like growth in views and shares and traffic sources to predict stories that will break a certain unique pageviews threshold (in the case of Wired and Ars, 100,000 unique pageviews).

Wired and Ars Technica have been packaging Accelerator as part of an overall media plan for a specific time period, like one week, with an eye toward advertisers that want to increase their exposure for a given period. Once a story seems like it has the potential to go viral, it is connected to an ad server, where an advertiser that has pre-bought the Accelerator will have its ad appear adjacent to the popular story. Porsche, LG, Motorola, HBO, Microsoft are among advertisers that have used the platform.

“We’d have these stories. like the Kim-Kanye story on Vogue, but we haven’t been able to monetize them, because we haven’t expected it,” said Josh Stinchcomb, vp of corporate partnerships at Condé Nast. “This allows us to monetize the spikes and lets the advertiser own that story. There’s over-delivery, typically, making the buy more efficient. More important, they get connected to the story everybody’s talking about.”

The program is a sign that big publishers are looking to come to advertisers with their own social ad story. Facebook, Twitter and others are getting the lion’s share of those budgets, and programs like The Accelerator are one way to claw some of that money back.

If a site were to underdeliver (which hasn’t happened yet, according to Condé Nast), it would extend the time period. Condé Nast isn’t the first publisher to try to capitalize on social media’s impact on news. The New York Times in 2012 launched a social media program, Ricochet, to monetize social sharing. The product let advertisers pick links and create special links for sharing, and have their ad appear when someone clicks on the link.

Other Condé Nast brands will have the ability to set their own rules and pageview thresholds when using the Accelerator. (An advertiser might not want its ad to appear on a story about a competitor, for example.) In theory, any of the brands could benefit from the platform, although since it’s predicated on newsy content, it’s more likely to do better with bigger brands.

The New Yorker is already out selling the program, as are Vanity Fair and Glamour.

“The New Yorker has great potential for this program, because we do have stories across the entire spectrum of what we write about that spike, and we have no way to predict that,” said Lisa Hughes, vp, publisher of the weekly magazine, whose huge recent traffic bonanzas have come from stories as diverse as Andrew Solomon’s profile on Adam Lanza’s father, which got more than 1 million unique visitors, and this parenting humor piece by Sarah Miller, which got 780,000.

In The New Yorker’s case, that breadth of subjects, ranging from somber investigative pieces to humor also means it may have to contend with advertisers that are choosy about what type of content  they want to be associated with.

”Some advertisers run of site, some just on business channel or just against c-suite,” Hughes said. “I would imagine we’d have some of that in play. If we have an advertiser say, ‘I only want to be around thought leaders,’ we’ll tailor it to the advertiser’s need.”

It’s also worth noting that this may be the first time that the traditionally siloed Condé Nast has rolled out a product that originated at the brand level.

“Sharing this technology with the rest of the company was always our goal,” said Howard Mittman, vp, publisher of Wired and Ars Technica. “Our product team continues to act as a laboratory for innovation, and I hope it will be just as successful for the other brands as it has been for Ars and Wired.”

It’s not hard to imagine Condé Nast licensing the product to still other, non-Condé companies. To date, the company hasn’t had any conversations about that, Stinchcomb said, but that “anything’s possible.”