CNN lifts lid on plan to monetise attention rather than the news

CNN doesn’t want to monetise news, it wants to monetise attention and plans to wrap this up in its first-party data to give to advertisers in order to justify the larger budgets it now wants.

It’s no secret that the likes of Google and Facebook are locking down their data, spurred by the need to measure and monetise advertiser performance plus the growing demand for privacy. It’s a tried and tested method that’s rapidly turned these businesses into media technology companies, something CNN wants in on as it tries to move as far as it can from low yield ad deals and CPM rates. But a large chunk of that value rests on its ability to treat ads as part of the user experience so that like Google and Facebook it can actually price ads based on the performance.

To advertisers, this means more bespoke campaigns built around its first-party data. Valuations of those audiences will happen within a new 30 person analytics operation at CNN that will work with the sales team to sell to marketers how audiences are engaging on its platforms, whether it’s the site, the Great Big Story video network or even Snapchat. That in turn could unearth new reporting metrics for CNN, which wants to use viewability to not only talk about how many ads have been seen above the 70 per cent threshold, but also more brand engagement areas like the average daily viewing time of each one of its ads or how many times someone hovered over a placement.

Investing in media revenue innovation

The hope is to be able to really push performance data and optimisation to brands, while those same deals would ideally nudge brands away from standard and high impact ads to integrated ones geared to deliver a specific audience. Delivering that attention is dependent on two things – CNN’s first-party data and its ability to track broader internet usage.

There are around 100 different audience segments the publisher is currently using, meaning that it can essentially index those groups against one another to say to marketers: ‘This business travel audience has 30 per cent of the same people as the leisure travel audience, so what sort of message should you be saying to those in the overlap,’ for example. The other strand revolves around offering insights on what its readers are doing outside of CNN’s owned platforms on the wider web to advertisers – a process known as audience extension. Details of how this depth of insight is achieved are being kept under wraps, though CNN did reveal it’s a mix of device IDs, cookies, amongst “other things”.

“That’s a huge amount of information that publishers haven’t been able to give, or many still don’t give their clients,” said Andrew Morse, the head of CNN Digital explaining plans to not just sell targeted ads but really push sponsored content in order to attract larger budgets.

For example, there could be original content from CNN’s Digital Studios, which focuses on both editorial and branded documentary-style features, alongside work from its in-house native studio that could be tied together to give advertisers what they can’t anywhere else. And while that does indeed blur the lines between editorial and branded content, CNN believes it is the way forward for publishers so long as they label the content correctly.

Helping marketers tell better stories

“We’re looking to create content that can live on TV or digital that our sales teams can take out to the marketplace and give sponsors that multi-platform footprint,” said Morse.

To do that, the business is ploughing more funds into mobile and off-platform publishing as seen by its recent announcement that it will let Facebook Messenger users directly chat with its bot get breaking news and personalised stories. For example, if a user is interested in learning more about the Zika virus, they can simply message CNN “Zika” and the bot will respond with the latest news or most relevant story about it.

CNN is working with “several messaging apps”, revealed Morse, but conceded the medium could turn out to be a “flash a pan” for the industry. The fact is “we don’t know yet,” he continued and “in my view if you don’t know then you need to go all in and figure it out”.

So far so Buzzfeed, and Morse is an admirer of how the publisher treats ads as part of the media experience and enabling it to build a business model around the attention it commands from readers. In recognition of a need to change, CNN’s digital account director for each region works with account directors for specific advertisers to create cross-platform campaigns.

“It’s not just about sticking up a great video series and hoping people find it. It’s about using all those platforms and targeting people in those platforms to make sure we get the right volume of viewers plus the right content to our readers,” said Rob Bradley, director of digital ad revenue and data at CNN. “The largest portion of our revenue is brands that have sponsored content for digital campaigns or cross platforms campaigns that are a large portion of digital but also run on TV.

“It’s not about giving advertisers a spreadsheet of impressions, clicks and CTRs anymore. For me, it’s about moving to a point where we’re delivering this very detailed and smart information to marketers to help make them key decisions.”

Everything that can be programmatic will

Programmatic will be pivotal to delivering those cross-platform campaigns, with Bradley revealing his intention to get the business to a point where “anything that can be traded programmatically will”. That’s not to say he wants all advertising on CNN’s platforms to be done this way in light of ongoing efforts to push more bespoke campaigns through its ad server.

Part of the plan is happening through header bidding, which lets the publisher expand the number of bidders on its inventory in order to drive competition, and ideally CPMs. CNN opted to work with Rubicon Project’s Fastlane tool, which it claims is increasing CPMs.

On the Pangaea Alliance, the ad sales network CNN is part of along with the Guardian, the Financial Times and The Economist, Bradley said that a year into the test “things are going well” and there are plans to invest the account management, infrastructure and operational sides of the initiative this year. Launched as a way for the publishers to package up their remnant inventory, the alliance has generate “demand” from buyers, according to Bradley, who added it has a “large volume” of inventory already going through it.

Elsewhere, CNN is moving forward with its five month-old Great Big Story initiative, its answer to the rise of Buzzfeed and Vice. Focusing on shareable stories and integrated advertising, the video platform is already giving the publisher key learnings, with its core structure of analytics and editorial experts working together being transferred over to the audience development team it is building. The business model for it is built on the ability to act as both a production house and also creating branded content for specific platforms. Since it launched, Morse claimed “we’re getting calls from cable networks in the US and independent TV networks all over the work”.

A big part of that early success is down to the “clear voice” of the Great Big Story”, according to Morse, who explained capturing that autonomy was part of the reason it chose to run it as separate subsidiary of CNN, making it the first product in 35 years to launch without using the brand.

The changes come as the business moves to hire over 200 people and invest £20m to fuel its digital drive. New recruits will include journalists video producers, analytics specialists as well as mobile product development specialists, according to the media business.

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