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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Time well spent? Inside the FT’s time-based ads sales effort

November 11, 2015 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

When it comes to finite resources, perhaps none is so keenly felt as the limited number of hours in the day. And, as more content creators vie for this precious time—across a proliferation of delivery platforms and devices—creators of digital content have steadily seen their online objectives reduced to a frantic race for audience numbers, pageviews and click-throughs. Some leaders in the industry, however, are looking to change the conversation to one where time spent is the metric that matters.

Last fall, the Financial Times began testing ad sales based upon a new cost-per-hour (CPH) metric. Its initial foray went well and in May of this year they announced the official launch of a new time-based measurement system. The FT’s US Commercial Director, Brendan Spain, says the decision to initiate a new method for transacting ad value based upon time was prompted by an increasing sense among marketers that they their digital ad investments might not be as valuable as once thought, given revelations of high bot traffic and ad-viewability limitations.

“We decided that, given our audience, as well as the registration and subscription information we have behind our readership, that we had an opportunity to go the other way to create a very transparent product that marketers could be confident in,” says Spain. Now, a year after this idea was conceived, Spain believes that the need for better metrics is at least as great—if not greater—than it was then.

In part, the need stems from new concerns over agency rebates, which have increased the demand for transparency into the ad-buying landscape. However, Spain says that he’s also seeing an increased desire for brand dollars to be allocated to digital, which requires publishers to deliver more substantive KPIs, beyond the click. Spain notes that “There’s no KPI-uplift for clicking” while CPH measurement, on the other hand, “offers recognition that there are marketers are doing something besides trying to sell a pizza, that there are other KPIs that need to be looked at.”

That said, despite a desire for something better, there’s still a hill to climb in terms of getting any new metric to gain wide acceptance. “There’s not a line for CPH on agency spreadsheets and let’s face it, those spreadsheets are a window into the minds in the middle- and back-office,” Spain says, emphasizing the need for education on both the client and agency sides.

There is also a question of standardizing the time-based metric in order for it to scale. The Economist recently rolled out its own take on selling time-based advertising. Unlike the FT, The Economist opted to cap its attention measurement at 30 seconds. The Wall Street Journal has also reportedly explored a time-based approach that would be based upon incremental blocks of time. Differing models can create confusion in the marketplace, though Spain points out that it is still early days and the FT is among an increasing number of publishers testing out what makes the most sense. The important thing, he says, is that “the vast majority of premium publishers agree that time is transactable.”

To date, the FT has worked with 15 brands on 19 campaigns. Eight percent of their digital inventory is being served through CPH, a number Spain says adds up to a not-insignificant amount of incremental revenue on the FT’s P&L. The positive impact also affects its advertisers who are seeing 10% more active time in view than if they purchased CPM campaign. They are also currently in the process of surveying all of its clients who have tested CPH buying so far to better evaluate and document its effectiveness. “Everything we’re doing is evidence based,” says Spain. “It is really important that we’re not just putting a finger in the air.”

Despite its promise, time-based sales are not right for every campaign. As Spain points out, CPH works best to achieve objectives such as ad recall, brand awareness and recognition, and purchase consideration. He also doesn’t foresee the FT moving entirely away from CPM-based sales, though he points out they’ve never been a CPC environment. By Q1, his goal is for all of the FT’s top clients to be aware of CPH and see its value based upon evidence-based case studies.

There are metrics that can be very easily manipulated, says Spain. “You can buy likes, retweets, followers—all that takes is a five minute Google search to figure out how.” What needs to be emphasized, however, is that there are things you can’t buy. “You can’t add another hour to a CEOs day to read a publication. We need to un-muddy the waters. One of the ways to do that is to focus on metrics that are a lot harder to fudge.”

As he considers the bigger digital advertising picture, Spain has high hopes: He believes that an attention-based approach can bring more brand ad dollars to quality partners; increase marketer confidence that their ads are being seen and are engaging consumers; give publishers a means to value attention at a scaled level rather than a flat rate; and maybe even drive some of the bad inventory out of consideration or drive it out of the market altogether.

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