Digital ads and grains of salt

Assessing recent claims

Some data are better than no data, I suppose, but it always pays to be skeptical when companies disclose financial data selectively when touting the success of this or that venture. And that’s certainly true when it comes to digital publishing.

Forbes Media’s CEO Mike Perlis wrote a memo, reported by Ad Week’s Emma Bazilian, claiming strong performance from digital ads on, particularly from its native ad program, known as BrandVoice. (The format has its own problems, of course, but leave that aside.) I’m sure all the following is true, but the data here are highly selective, so a grain of salt is required:

The company achieved its best financial performance in five years in 2012, according to a memo released this morning by Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. Digital ad revenue, which increased 19 percent year over year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue for the year, said Perlis. Ten percent of total revenue came from advertisers who incorporated BrandVoice into their buys, and by the end of this year, that share is estimated to rise to 25 percent.

Digital ad growth of 19 percent is definitely good. But keep in mind, digital ad spending on U.S. magazines generally rose 15.5 percent in 2012 and is projected for a 12 percent rise this year, according to emarketer. (Newspapers, if you’re wondering, saw digital ad growth slow to one percent in the last quarter of 2012.)

Forbes, which doesn’t have a paywall on its news content, is doing well ad-wise, and that’s good, but the rest of the industry is doing only slightly less well.

But the real questions is, as always, compared to what? Digital ads everywhere in US magazines are rising from a low base, and, at about $3 billion nationally, are still a fifth that of print ad sales. That digital ads now account for half of total ads at Forbes can be good news but can also be a function of shrinking print ad sales.

And while data from the Magazine Publishers Association show that total ad revenue indeed fell about 18 percent at Forbes since 2008, the magazine is still said to have posted $275 million in print-only ads sales in 2012. Following Perlis’s comments—that digital ad revenue “accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue” for the year—that would mean digital ad revenue would be roughly the same, $275 million. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a huge number. The big caveat is that MPA don’t take into account discounting, which this estimate puts as high as 57 percent. Taking the most conservative number, the biggest discount, that puts print and digital ad sales at $156 million a piece. That’s STILL a big number.

By comparison, The New York Times’s site, which gets more than twice the traffic of Forbes’s, pulls in “only” around $180 million in digital ads, according to Ryan Chittum’s calculations.

A Forbes Media spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s finances.

Forbes Media is closely held, so is free to disclose what it wants, and, to be fair, Perlis’s comments were meant for internal consumption. But the point is, out-of-context numbers will only take you so far. Remember when the Times’s David Carr reported that John Paton of the Journal Register Company, “among other feats…increased digital revenue by over 200 percent”?

We do.

The Financial Times, by contrast, is part of a public company, Pearson PLC, and offers a bit more visibility, but even that is limited.

The FT has become the Justin Bieber of the paywall set; I’ve been mighty impressed myself at how its digital subscription system has added materially to revenue when the naysayers kept saying paywalls wouldn’t work.

The fact that it’s a public company gives the public at least a chance to back into some hard numbers. I was able, for instance, to do a back-of-the-envelope calculations based on public filings that showed digital subscriptions brought in about $70 million last year, not including corporate subscriptions, out of total subscription revenue of $269 million for the paper. Overall revenue for the paper isn’t specified, but it’s part of Pearson’s FT Group, which also includes a merger newsletter business and a 50 percent stake in the Economist and had revenue of about $670 million.

Lauren Indvik on Mashable interviews FT Group CEO John Ridding, who discusses how the company uses information provided by customers to boost digital ad sales. One of the under-appreciated attributes of paywalls is that they lay the groundwork for a more intimate relationship with customers—a relationship that can then be sold to advertisers. There are problems with this surveillance model, as it’s sometimes described, but if the big players are going to do it, newspapers probably need to, too.


Ridding says the data-driven approach is transforming its marketing and advertising, too. The data collected from registrants allows advertisers to target campaigns to, say, executives in the U.S. aerospace industry, or HR department heads in India.

And, this sounds lucrative, or creepy, depending on your mood:

Added to this is a proprietary reporting tool called Deep View, which offers “the most” insight into advertising campaigns and how they perform compared to its competitors’, the FT says. (One media buying manager we spoke to confirmed this assessment, noting it is only available for direct, and not programmatic, ad buys.) During and after campaigns, advertisers can see who has seen or clicked on a campaign, and the optional placement and time of days to run the ads, “giving them the option to reassess mid-campaign, switch creative and retarget,” a spokesperson explains.

Sadly few figures are provided here, either.

The good news is that, according to public filings, overall revenue in the group since 2008 (which, again, includes sizable non-FT units) was up 13.6 percent at the end of last year, to about $669 million (£443 million), while profitability (after accounting for the sale of a unit) is more or less steady, at about $74 million (£49 million).

On the other hand, Ridding tells us, overall ads (print and digital) now make up only 39 percent of the FT Group’s revenue, as opposed to 52 percent in 2008.

So what we do know is that, even with “Deep View” and everything else the FT is able to sell to advertisers, the real growth is coming from digital subscriptions, not digital ads.

And what we don’t know about digital ads’ performance and prospects is a lot.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , ,