WebMD’s Path to Premium Mobile Ads

Like most top publishers, WebMD is seeing a shift to mobile, now seeing approximately 30 percent of its traffic off desktop, up from 4 percent two years ago. Now the question is how to make that traffic work for the business.

Todd Zander, the company’s vp of mobile and emerging media, sees a reluctance from brands to go all-in for mobile. WebMD is getting around that by focusing on selling audiences, rather than platforms. Rather than go for mobile sales, the company sells the target demographic and then includes mobile in the buy if the requested target demo skews high for mobile usage.

How is WebMD closing the revenue gap between mobile CPMs and desktop CPMs?
It’s a challenge because advertisers and agencies have not caught up to users. Their spend in mobile is nowhere near consumer usage. From a CPM perspective, there is disparity with regards to the remnant inventory. Where we make up in remnant inventory is around first-party sales. There aren’t issues with lower CPMs with advertisers. The challenge is, there are not a lot of advertisers willing to spend.

There’s lots of talk of mobile-first. Is that the direction WebMD is going?
We think it will level off on mobile Web at 35 percent. The iPad is 85 percent of all tablet traffic, and we are seeing 8 percent for tablet overall and 10 percent for our apps. The PC is still where the majority of our site traffic originates, but we are seeing significant gains from mobile and tablet users. We are seeing traffic spikes on mobile at night and on weekends. People are watching TV, relaxing, and when they have a health-related question, they whip out their mobile phone. From a sales perspective, if you want to reach an audience like moms, you need to consider mobile. We did a survey and found that 18 percent of our audience on mobile Web has never been on the PC site before. They are finding WebMD for the first time on the mobile Web.

How are you selling mobile?
We try to package it. People want to buy audiences. So, for example, if an advertiser wants to target moms, then mobile will be a big portion of that buy because we know that moms are always accessing us from their mobile phones. If an advertiser wants to buy for mobile, that’s possible, but we typically sell the audience not the platform. We use ad networks, but the majority of our sales we do on our own. We’ve got almost 100 sales reps selling multi-screen solutions. Then to fill the rest, we do RTB for mobile.

What are you finding to be the biggest reservations that brands have with fully embracing mobile?
The biggest challenge I see, from talking to agency and brand partners, is, they want to do something mobile-specific when they make that buy, instead of just buying it for the audience. A lot of brands think there needs to be a location component or QR for a buy to work on mobile.

What are the imperatives for a successful mobile strategy for brands?
The first thing is to think about mobile in a multi-screen environment and don’t look at it on its own. It is about one audience accessing services across various different platforms. Creative is a big challenge on mobile as well. Brands need to be watching what their doing and iterating on the fly. But there’s an investment with regards to that, and some brands are reluctant to make it. Mobile is new, and brands need to understand it’s not going to work every single time. They need to be willing to test and learn and optimize to figure out what works and what does not.