How Forbes is testing its SSPs to improve programmatic ad revenue

This article is part of Digiday’s coverage of its Digiday Publishing Summit. More from the series →

Just as advertisers and agencies are the clients of demand-side platforms, publishers are the clients of supply-side platforms — though it may not always seem that way. Forbes has sought to reassert the relationship through a series of tests with its SSPs to improve the ad tech firms’ contributions to the publisher’s revenue.

Because SSPs work with many publishers, publishers can often take the lead of SSPs to identify what is and isn’t working in the publishers’ SSP integrations based on what has and hasn’t worked for other publishers. But last year, Forbes adopted a different approach.

“We actually stopped, and we thought, ‘What if they were wrong? What if the integration that worked for other publishers wasn’t as successful that it was for us?’ We did see revenue coming in, but we really wanted to start looking at testing what if we tried different integrations,” said Rebeca Solórzano, svp of programmatic operations and strategy at Forbes, during an on-stage session on March 25 at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado.

Rather than revisit its SSP integrations en masse, Forbes started with a single SSP. Careful not to commence any testing that could seriously upset its revenue, the publisher picked “one of the middle to lower funnel SSPs where we were seeing OK revenue,” Solórzano said. In its SSP tests, Forbes has investigated approaches, such as whether Amazon’s Transparent Ad Marketplace or Prebid are the better implementations for its work with a given SSP.

“Our main goal is not moving money from one place to another, but finding that new revenue,” she said.

And Forbes found that the testing did result in new revenue. The revenue coming through the existing integration with the SSP remained consistent, “and surprisingly, we actually started to see some revenue doubling in a different integration versus the one that we had previously,” said Solórzano. 

To ensure that the tests provided reliable results, Forbes instituted a three-month plan to evaluate the tests. The publisher monitored the tests’ performance on a daily and monthly basis, but the three-month view helps to account for any temporary spikes or fluctuations. “As soon as you turn something on, you’ll see a huge jump, but then a lot of the times, it’ll settle out. But it was good to see that we did see a jump, and it stayed consistent,” she said.

In 2023, Forbes conducted this testing with two SSPs, and so far in 2024, the publisher has tested a third SSP and is preparing to start testing with a fourth. “I don’t want to go too crazy on doing every single one of them because there’s some that are completely fine,” said Solórzano. That said, there are others that have been on the chopping block for Forbes, and these tests can effectively serve as the publisher version of a PIP for its SSPs.

“Let’s put you on a plan to understand if this is something that we can look at differently, ruffle some feathers and figure out if we can find success,” Solórzano said.

And the success that Forbes has seen in its SSP testing so far — which benefits not only the publisher but also the SSPs who can crow about the improved performance to other publisher clients — can help the publisher to encourage its other SSPs to participate in the tests. For example, Forbes can see that one SSP moved up the ranks of the SSPs it works with as a result of the testing and hold that up as evidence to higher-ranking SSPs to participate in similar tests in order to improve their own positions as well as their working relationships with the publisher.

“It was something that was worth testing. It was shifting the narrative of having them and trusting them and their expertise, but then putting the publisher first and understanding what can we do to strengthen that partnership and how can we think about it differently to generate more revenue,” said Solórzano.

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