NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Online publishers have long suffered under the control of ad networks, criticized as "black-box" trading desks where advertisers have little power over where their campaigns appear, while publishers are at the behest of network's pricing -- often netting a dollar or less for every thousand page views they generate. For many websites, however, such networks bring in revenue they might not otherwise be able to generate, either because they don't have enough page views and bundling them with other publishers makes selling more feasible, or because they don't have the staff or technology to broker bids on their own.
But one major publisher has embarked upon a solution that may offer a better model for content businesses. For the past few months, the Weather Channel has been selling its online property and mobile ad space exclusively and without any connection to other publishers -- what effectively amounts to a private ad network.
"The whole reason we're doing this is it increases the size of our relationship with our advertising customers," said Weather Channel CEO Michael Kelly. Mr. Kelly emphasized that the Weather Channel had always eschewed ad networks, preferring to sell in-house even though it has never been able to fully sell out its inventory. "No one sells out 100%," Mr. Kelly said. It recently partnered with AdMeld, which offers a bidding platform for publishers, to better sell its deep wells of pages in a way that is similar to the automated, real-time technology that was once almost exclusively the purview of networks. But according to Mr. Kelly, as well as advertisers, this platform offers better transparency to both sides.
"The benefit for us is that it becomes a way to do automated buying for audiences from known inventory sources, quality inventory," said Sean Kegelman, senior-VP of partnerships for VivaKi. Mr. Kegelman said that while ad networks had always offered efficiently mechanized methods for buying, they hadn't always offered full control over where its campaigns would run. "With the Weather Channel, there's more control," he said.
Mr. Kelly said the Weather Channel has seen an increase in the value of its inventory since employing the private network, though he declined to offer exact figures. "It's definitely over and above what we were doing before," he said.
While that might suggest advertisers are now having to pay more for pages, the Weather Channel is simply able to sell more of its inventory now that its platform allows advertisers to plug into its system much in the way they might with an ad network. In September, the Weather Channel had 38.7 million readers and 19.4 million from mobile devices, according to ComScore.
Mr. Kelly said the Weather Channel's reach on smartphones also spurred on its development of a private ad network. "The mobile marketplace is not as organized as the display marketplace," Mr. Kelly said. "And our mobile inventory is exploding." In addition, Mr. Kelly pointed out that over 640,000 partner websites had installed Weather Channel widgets that show the local weather, against which the company hopes to sell advertising moving forward.
First, but not the last
While the Weather Channel is perhaps the first major publisher of size to pen off pages, Mr. Kelly said they won't be the last. "If you're large enough, you're going to have to match up your capabilities with audiences," he said, citing the fact that more publishers are becoming savvy about how to better package and sell their viewership to advertisers, a function that ad networks have long managed.
"We're seeing a massive shift in this direction," Mr. Kegelman said. The majority of VivaKi's ad-network spending is moving toward semi-private or fully private networks, such as Weather Channel. As the joint-buying company for media agencies under Publicis Groupe, VivaKi manages a significant portion of online ad spending, and Mr. Kegelman said that ad networks are having to reassess its value in this new makeup.
"We're having to refocus our business more on mid-tail to long-tail publishers," said one executive at a major ad network, referring to smaller-sized websites and blogs.
The emergence of companies such as AdMeld -- along with Rubicon, Media Math and a host of others -- have allowed publishers to better control the value of its content by setting prices and having advertisers and even other ad networks to bid for page views.
Birds of a feather getting together?
According to one insider at another ad network, USA Today has been able to increase the price of its inventory by as much as 18% over what they had been selling at ad networks as a result of partnering with what is sometimes called RTB, or real-time bidding mechanisms, such as Rubicon.
AdMeld has 400 publishers using its platform, from which over 500 clients -- from ad networks and so-called demand-side platforms such as InviteMedia -- all bid against each other to buy inventory from select publishers such as Weather Channel.
"A publisher can see anywhere from 40% to 400% lift on the value of their inventory," AdMeld CEO Michael Barrett said.
Weather Channel is unique in that it has not partnered with other publishers to offer even bigger scale of audiences to advertisers, but Mr. Barrett said some publishers may team up to create a semi-private ad network to pool their audiences. "You may see a second phase where birds of a feather get together," he said. "That would be a good model for publishers."