How Dennis Publishing’s affiliate business boosts its ads performance

For most publishers, diversifying revenue streams away from volatile advertising into e-commerce and affiliate has become the norm. Dennis Publishing has now found its affiliate and ad businesses actually complement each other. As the former has grown its ad performance, it’s led to more clients rebooking campaigns.

Across the magazine publisher’s portfolio, which includes titles like The Week and Men’s Fitness, affiliate revenue grew 72% in 2018. On Dennis’ main product-review site, Expert Reviews, affiliate revenue grew 83% during the same year and now accounts for 70% of the title’s revenue, up from virtually nothing three years ago, according to the publisher.

During that time, Dennis increased the breadth and number of products it features on Expert Reviews: As well as all the tech gadgets like cameras, laptops and mobiles, the site now sells karaoke machines, mattresses and vacuum cleaners. It also tightened up its content to cater better for organic search algorithms — and covers more products that people are already searching for.

As a result, more people visit the site more regularly and for longer, according to the publisher. Traffic to the site increased by 45%, time on page increased by 47% and returning visitors increased by 74% over three years, although the publisher was unwilling to share specific figures. The change in audience quality increased click-through rates on its display ads by 140%, the publisher wouldn’t share exact figures. Industry averages for click-through rates are woefully low at 0.35%.

“The growth is a testament to the quality of audience we have been driving,” said Jenny Clements, head of partnerships and affiliates at Dennis Publishing. “This feeds into the bigger strategy of pulling data from all parts of the business to deliver a personalized user experience.”

Reading a review is a good indicator the reader may make a purchase. With this first-party data, Dennis creates niche purchase-intent audience segments for advertisers that would have traditionally been created by a third party. “Coming from Dennis, the data is more accurate and more specific,” said Amit Kotecha, marketing director at DMP Permutive, which works with Dennis. “Being able to turn that data into an asset is smart. The assumption is, the quality of the data is reflected in the ad performance. It’s putting the power back in the publisher’s hands.”

Being able to create specific audience segments for retailers around Black Friday, for instance, means the publisher can charge higher CPMs, said Alex Kirby, head of programmatic and audience data at Dennis, although she wouldn’t share specific figures. “We can also use these audience campaigns to optimize standard campaigns which increase CTR, engagement and help with rebooking campaigns with clients,” she said. This first-party audience data means the publisher has maintained strong CPMs for direct-sold display ads while growing its programmatic ad sales.

Dennis is no stranger to e-commerce. The publisher was on track to make 40% of its revenue last year selling cars. But it’s been on a long journey from viewing affiliates as a sideline project to making it a significant part of the strategy on its other sites like Auto Express and Car Buyer.

However, it’s a constant balance to ensure revenue streams complement rather than cannibalize each other, and Dennis runs multiple A/B tests on whether a prime ad slot should take priority over several affiliate links. This requires centralized teams in product management and user experience, and a centralized affiliate team of four people.

Clements says the publisher will continuously do tests as affiliate content could be ad-lite or ad-free “First, we decide what the purpose of the content is and create the user experience around it. Creating the best user experience for a user’s shopping journey is not loading a page with ads,” she added. “This is not always to get ad revenue but affiliate revenues; we work out which will outweigh the other.”

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