Vox Media Takes a Page From Magazines for New Ad Formats

Publisher Has Outfitted Units With Ability to Scale

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Add Vox Media to the list of online publishers, such as BuzzFeed, Forbes and Say Media, adding custom ad products to their arsenal.

The publisher behind sports blog SB Nation and technology news site The Verge is experimenting with new, full-screen display ads in hopes of phasing out online's standard boring boxes and appease marketers by bringing a magazine-like aesthetic to web advertising.

Microsoft Xbox campaign on Vox Media's Polygon
Microsoft Xbox campaign on Vox Media's Polygon

"Our ambition is to really invent the future of brand advertising on the web," said Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff.

The ads -- collectively dubbed "Fishtank" for their depth -- adapt the full-page spread into a full-screen takeover, but rather than overtaking the page, they show up while scrolling, like how magazine ads appear while flipping through the pages. "Scroll is the new page turn," said Vox Media COO Marty Moe.

The new ads -- being sold as part of sponsorship packages or per-thousand impressions -- borrow elements from all the various interactive, rich-media ads that show how far web technology has advanced since the first banner ads showed up in the early 90s. Other specialty units feature video galleries, photo slideshows or art that animates as someone scrolls up and down the page, and mobile versions for tablets and smartphones modify the ads to activate by a user's swipe.

Vox first started experimenting last year during the SB Nation redesign with a Captain Morgan campaign that fixed an image of the rum brand's bottle on the page as a user scrolled through a story. "We treat designing and developing our ad products the way we do our editorial products," said Vox Media chief product officer Trei Brundrett.

Eye-catching as Vox's new ads are, they face the same challenge that all publishers do when trying to convince advertisers and agencies to make custom ads that they can't replicate across the web. AOL faced this problem with its media-rich Project Devil ad unit.

"When AOL rolled out the Devil unit, it was hard to get that onto a [media] plan if only to run on AOL, even though that's a sizeable suite of properties. As soon as MSN and Yahoo [added it], you've got a story," said Carat VP and digital director Sankar Patel.

AOL's properties reached 118.7 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore. That's more than six times the aggregate audiences of Vox's sites. SB Nation received 13.0 million U.S. unique visitors in June, while The Verge and Polygon garnered 3.3 million and 1.3 million, respectively, per the online measurement firm.

Vox could extend its "Fishtank" ads to other publishers' sites, though that's not yet the plan. "We're going to be releasing these on Vox properties. That's our priority, where we're focused right now. We don't have anything to announcing about doing this beyond Vox right now," said Mr. Bankoff.

Vox has been working with online ad company OpenX on its ad technology, aiming to incorporate the ability to scale the ads on other web sites. The companies' product teams held a multi-day hackathon at OpenX's Southern California office to figure out how to work those back-end features into the ads' initial development rather than apply them later.

In the long run, Vox execs wouldn't mind seeing the custom ads help phase out the IAB-standardized boxes. "Over time we believe it's likely that [a move away from IAB standardized units] will happen. What we will not do is force-feed clients [non-standard alternatives]," Mr. Moe said.

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