Livingly Media CEO Erica Carter Makes Programmatic Profitable

Livingly Media runs a profitable business focused on programmatic advertising.

And to stay profitable, it’s steered clear of the next hot thing. The publisher tried direct sales but realized it couldn’t compete with competitors offering 360-degree custom packages with content, social, first-of-their-kind ideas and offline events. Nor has Livingly dived into video or embraced platform publishing.

Instead, it has focused on driving readers on-site.

Livingly Media’s programmatic business embraces innovation. It added header bidding early on and built a custom header bidding wrapper. It signed up a programmatic launch sponsor for its new site Mabel + Moxie, selling homepage and content sponsorships through programmatic guaranteed as well as a first-look private marketplace.

Part of Livingly Media’s conservative, profit-driven approach comes from the fact that the publisher was acquired by Aufeminin in 2015 for $25 million. (Aufeminin, then owned by Axel Springer, just changed hands in April to become part of French broadcaster TF1. Aufeminin posted $133 million in revenue in 2017.)

“We went from a venture-backed and top-line-focused private company to a bottom-line-focused public company,” said Livingly Media CEO Erica Carter, who led the finance team at the time. “We had to step back and focus on the business and what revenue we were driving profitably.”

Programmatic paid off.

“2018 will be our third straight profitable year,” Carter added.

With business in the black, Livingly Media is again eyeing expansion. It launched two new sites this year. It’s Rosy targets women over 50, a high-spending but neglected segment of consumers. Mabel + Moxie focuses on parenting content.

Carter talked with AdExchanger about Livingly Media’s new sites and what’s next for the programmatic publisher.

AdExchanger: Why does Livingly Media focus completely on programmatic?

ERICA CARTER: In January 2013 we just posted a second round of financing. The investors really believed in direct sales. We were leaning in heavily and it was scaling fine.

That was the beginning of where budgets really started to get consolidated to the comScore top three [in a category], plus people who could do never-before-seen things, offline events and 360-degree packages. We were too small and scrappy to lean into that in a big way… so we took a big swing and went all-in with programmatic.

In TV, few marketers care about reaching consumers in the 50-plus demo, which includes readers of It’s Rosy. Is that true for digital as well?

The demographic aged 50-plus is the largest online population right now. They control over half of the country’s wealth, and shop online 2-to-1 over younger adults. But only 5% to 15% of marketing spend goes toward older adults. That felt disjointed to me. Marketers are so data-driven, I have to imagine that expectation gap is going to close.

Even though it’s written that marketers are not targeting this audience, the overall average rates in the open programmatic auction on Rosy are tied with Lonny for our highest-yielding [CPMs].

So if these women shop online twice as much, are those high CPMs coming from retargeting?

That’s what I’m assuming, but we do see some contextual buyers as well, so there is something about the content we are creating.

Mabel + Moxie had a programmatic launch sponsor. I don’t think I’ve ever heard programmatic and launch sponsor uttered together. How did that come about?

First, it was a tactical conversation. We heard that CPMs are terrible when you launch a site. Buyers have to discover you. Tactically, we were thinking about what we needed to do to make sure there was demand on our new sites when we launched.

But then we thought there was an opportunity: Why not give our PMP partners the ability to sponsor? One of them had a pregnancy buy in the month of May, and we offered them the ability to be the exclusive PMP partner for the first 30 days. Along with that partnership, we gave them a homepage takeover and a content takeover for a few selected pieces of content. We did those two through programmatic guaranteed in Google AdX.

With that PMP, they have first look. They are bidding at twice the rate they are bidding on other sites, so we are bringing them the right audience. Part of our strategy will be doing different types of programmatic sponsorships going forward.

Livingly Media has always excelled at paid and organic platform distribution. What does that mean in light of Facebook’s changes to focus on content from friends and family?

We strive for a healthy balance between social, search and content partnerships like Taboola/Outbrain. What we like about Facebook and increasingly Pinterest is the ability to target.

We can publish a piece of content, and then set interest and demo targets to get it in front of the right people. Facebook allows you to have that power even if the algorithm is changing.

But the change caused big problems for publishers like LittleThings, which went out of business. What separates the survivors from those that failed?

We spend a lot of time thinking about our paid strategy. But we never fully relied on it. Also, being 100% programmatic and display-driven keeps us focused on bringing folks to the site. We never shifted a ton of resources toward platform publishing.

So the change hurt publishers who sold branded content on Facebook the most?

A few years ago, that was the way to get creative about direct sales. If you had more people on Facebook than on your site, you were able to shift those dollars to platform buys. But when that audience collapses, you can’t deliver on those campaigns and you have to pull back and retrench.

There are also trade winds against publishers on Facebook. We had a rep for years, and we lost our rep in Q1. We spend quite a lot of money on Facebook. We know other publishers that have lost their reps as well. In order to stay in Facebook’s good graces, you have to either be spending a ton of money with them or testing products that they are putting a ton of money into, or both.

Many publishers are diversifying revenue away from display advertising. How does Livingly fit into that trend?

CPM growth year over year is slowing. We are successful and profitable, but we look at the market and realize what we have been successful at for the past three years is not what we will be successful at for the next three years.

Thinking about a paywall, we have some brand work to do before we can ask a reader to do that. We are interested in where programmatic audio is going. We have kept our distance from video but watch it all the time.

Aufeminin was sold by Axel Springer to TF1, which is one of the largest broadcasters in France. They have an incredible depth of video assets we could use, so we are trying to figure out if that makes sense.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

1 Comment

  1. Jeremy

    I find it hard to believe that older adults (50+) shop online twice as much as youger adults. Where are you getting that data?

    Reply

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