Why publishers are learning how to buy ads

Publishers are used to spending an inordinate amount of energy trying to attract media buyers, but now they’re also playing the role themselves.

Publishers like Vox Media, BuzzFeed and Complex all have in-house ad-buying capability, part of a shift by publishers in how they think of audience development. Gone is the “build it and they will come” ethos, Instead, publishers are resorting to the brass tacks of building audiences through a variety of methods, including paying for distribution of content.

“Increasingly, it’s something clients are asking for,” Hayley Romer, vp and publisher of The Atlantic, said of paid amplification for native ads. The Atlantic uses SimpleReach and hired Sam Rosen from DigitasLBi a year ago as vp, marketing to help in that effort.

Vox Media, for its part, is looking for a head of paid media strategy. The person hired will help the publisher find look-alike audiences for advertisers beyond its family of sites, said Jonathan Hunt, Vox Media’s head of marketing. Vox Media is looking for someone with at least five years of experience in buying and planning, with a strong understanding of emerging platforms, according to a job description.

Vox Media has poured money into a souped-up content-management system, big name writers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, and acquisitions like Curbed. But in the world of Internet giants, paying to expand audiences is a necessary part of the strategy.

“Anyone who checks Quantcast can see we’ve gotten record organic traffic growth,” Hunt said. “But sometimes publishers like Vox Media have advertisers who want to reach audiences beyond our endemic audience.” That could mean, for example, a music advertiser that wants to reach an endemic music audience that Vox Media currently doesn’t directly cater to with its sites.

For other publishers, media buying is part and parcel of their native ad offerings. BuzzFeed, for instance, has a seven-person team that focuses on buying traffic for native ads on Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon, although it doesn’t use that capability for its editorial content, according to BuzzFeed president Greg Coleman.

“Our special sauce is understanding how to buy media, how to create advertising so it’s shared,” he said.

BuzzFeed uses its paid media team to make sure its native ads are seen by the right people on social media, as it did for this post for Geico, 11 Food Places Everyone Knows From Going To College In Boston. “When we run a branded piece like that, we get a 30 percent lift from people who saw that ad and shared it with a friend,” Coleman said.

For other publishers, paid distribution is key to both editorial and ad content. Complex Media has a 10-person audience-development team working on behalf of advertisers and editorial, half of which has agency experience of different kinds, said Scott Cherkin, evp of product and business development. With Google and Facebook’s recent big algorithm changes, the company has depended on having people who understand how to leverage them for advertisers, he said.

“No one just launches a post for a post’s sake,” Cherkin said. “Our partners are looking for a way to make their social posts come alive.”

The subject of paid distribution is a touchy one. Publishers don’t want to leave the impression that their organic audience isn’t big enough, forcing them to pay for traffic to fulfill an advertiser’s campaign (to say nothing of paying to promote editorial content, which is even more of a taboo subject.)

But the reality is, it’s hard to get people to click on and share native ads. So just as the newsroom has begun to embrace the function of audience development as they recognize social media’s role in reaching readers, distribution of native ads has become part of the planning at the outset of an ad campaign, whether it’s outsourced or done in house.

As buying traffic becomes more standard, it’s important that publishers are transparent in how they deliver that traffic, said Brooke Reno, group director at The Media Kitchen. “Whether brands know it or not, a publisher is likely paying for traffic in some capacity.”

The fact that some publishers are formalizing the function of media buying suggests there is a level of discontent among advertisers with the audience they’re reaching, said Steve Goldberg, managing director of Empirical Media. In a survey by TripleLift, scale was one of the main reasons cited by for advertisers who don’t use the format.

“Almost everyone that does sponsored content has the concern that it’s not going to deliver what the advertiser expects,” Goldberg said.

Execs are careful to emphasize they’re not buying traffic to fulfill advertiser commitments or that their traffic is in any way inferior.

Said Hunt: “We’ve been very successful at growing our audience organically.”