Attention: Microsoft and BP Bought Ads That Charge by the Hour

Ads Ran on Financial Times' Website

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The Financial Times website.
The Financial Times website.
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The world of digital-advertising sales was turned upside down nearly three months ago, when the Financial Times began selling ads based on time rather than impressions.

So did anyone buy those ads, which charge by the number of hours spent viewing them?

BP, Microsoft and two financial-services companies bought campaigns based on time, according to Jon Slade, managing director for business-to-consumer operations at the Financial Times. Mr. Slade, who until November was the paper's commercial director of digital advertising and insight, declined to name the two financial companies.

In October, Mr. Slade led the London-based paper's roll out of ad rates based on time rather than impressions. The company sought to charge some advertisers by the number of hours their ads appear in front of readers. The measurement -- cost per hour, or CPH -- shattered a decades-old media pricing model that values volume above all else.

But the four campaigns also fell short of the six advertisers the Financial Times had hoped to book in the last three months of 2014. The shortfall, Mr. Slade explained, was a result of several factors, including time of year. A good portion of marketers' budgets is already earmarked for the year.

The campaigns from BP, Microsoft and the financial-services companies brought in revenue to the Financial Times in the "healthy six figures," according to Mr. Slade.

The minimum length of these campaign was one month, he added.

Why they bought
BP's campaign highlights its staff members. And these messages "tend to have a depth and detail to them, which require time to consume," according to Robert Wine, a BP spokesman.

"Buying time over impressions allows us to focus on quality over quantity -- value over volume," he said in an email. "It also acknowledges that websites these days are extremely busy with lots of elements fighting for the users' attention. Paying for time feels a fairer trading mechanism for advertisers."

"We're still reviewing its effectiveness, but it's looking positive," he added.

For the last 20 years, most digital advertising has been sold on a cost-per-thousand impressions, otherwise known as CPM, which more or less rewards the volume of visits. But attention-based metrics, as they're called, value time over eyeballs. And it helps premium publishers, who might deliver a more attractive audience to advertisers, compete with digital-media behemoths like Google, Facebook and Yahoo for ad dollars.

Third-quarter ad spending online hit a record $12.4 billion in the U.S., according to a recent report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. That sets a new high-water mark for digital ad spending and represents a 17% increase over the previous year, the report said.

Mr. Slade said that ads bought on a cost-per-hour basis delivered 38% more exposure time to readers on average than ads bought through CPM.

That's because of the way the Financial Times measures cost-per-hour campaigns. Using technology from Chartbeat, the Financial Times starts its timer when at least 50% of an ad has appeared on screen for five seconds. So, once at least half the ad is in-view for five seconds or more, the time starts being counted toward an hour. If a reader scrolls or clicks away from the ad before five seconds have passed, the time doesn't count toward the hour of time an advertiser has bought.

Attention metrics come amid a broader industry discussion around display-ad viewability. In March, the Media Ratings Council, a standards organization, in collaboration with the IAB issued a set of rules around the "viewability" of digital advertising. It said an ad is considered viewable when at least 50% of it shows up in the viewable portion of a browser for at least one second.

The Financial Times has not yet connected exposure to the ads from these four campaigns to greater brand recall, according to Mr. Slade. But "it's not a massive leap" to say that 38% more time with an ad can lead to better recall of the brand, he said.

Mr. Slade expects more consumer-facing companies, including luxury brands, to try cost-per-hour next year. "It's really logical," he said. "We want to value time and exposure and that is really what you're trying to get, isn't it? Conceptually it's been very straightforward for people to grasp."

Shenan Reed, president of digital at the media agency MEC North America, said she's encouraged by the Financial Times' early efforts. "There is a great opportunity in this space for the industry and it's an area I am actively researching on behalf of our clients for 2015," said Ms. Reed, a strong proponent of attention-based advertising metrics.

"I still believe that we will get to a place in 2015 where we will be able to trade on a time based metric," she added.

In the last several months, eight publishers -- two from the U.K. and six from the U.S. -- have held detailed conversations with the Financial Times about attention-based digital-ads, according to Mr. Slade. He declined to name the publishers, but described them as "market-leading newspapers and magazine companies."