With New CRO, Bleacher Report Refines Branded Content Play

With high demand and short supply of pre-roll video ads, many publishers are creating more video content that can be monetized with pre-roll ads. But not Bleacher Report.

“Pre-roll is not the future of online advertising,” said Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Marketing Officer Howard Mittman, who joined the sports publication from Condé Nast in July.

In fact, Mittman said that most of the current advertiser demand for pre-roll is misguided.

“It’s clear why pre-roll is attractive to advertisers,” Mittman said. “They can amortize the cost of a campaign they did for broadcast, chop it up and push it out on social. That doesn’t mean it’s the best consumer or brand experience or most effective way to drive KPIs.”

But Bleacher Report nevertheless is investing in video. Instead of pre-roll, it wants to sell sponsorships or branded integrations to support its video content. The company is renovating its office to accommodate another video production studio that will be almost triple the size of its existing studio.

Its two breakout hits are NBA-focused “Game of Zones,” which is sponsored by AT&T, and NFL-focused “Gridiron Heights,” which was sold to PlayStation. “Game of Zones” averaged 4 million views per episode last season, and the series has attracted 70 million views across platforms to date. PlayStation took an interest in “Gridiron Heights” after its first season pushed total views to 60 million.

“That kind of storytelling, with the right balance of timely humor and sports-relevant content, and how we are able to bring brands like AT&T and PlayStation into that, makes a heck of a lot more sense than standard pre-roll,” Mittman said.

Mittman talked with AdExchanger about the ins and outs of building a branded content business and the future of VC-backed publishing.

AdExchanger: Why are you focusing on branded content over pre-roll?

HOWARD MITTMAN: Right now, social content and branded content experiences are what drive and move millennial and Gen Z consumers. Consumers’ bullshit detectors are getting more sophisticated, and advertisers need opportunities to mirror the interests, passions and core competencies of our youthful demos.

We are at a moment where there is more money to be spent in video advertising than there are real, legitimate video opportunities. It’s a fragmented, scary world with bad actors, middlemen and people who claim to have figured it out.

To go further down the “scary world” path, there’s been a lot of domain spoofing of pre-roll. How much fake pre-roll is there out there for Bleacher Report?

There’s not a significant amount. We are intentionally moving away from that being a model we have to support.

We have been removing certain units that might compromise the UX experience. We have been pulling pre-roll where we feel it compromises the integrity of social distribution mechanisms that consumers want to use to experience that content.

We are focused on app development. Installs are up 27% in the past six months. We are also focused on our social channels, where we have 90 million social interactions a month.

Many publishers running branded content find themselves stuck in an RFP cycle where they’re constantly pitching. What does that mean for Bleacher Report?

Across the industry, we need to stop treating every RFP like it’s a separate, unique relationship. We need to build off the campaign data so each RFP builds off the last one versus starting over from scratch. Blindly sending an RFP to 500 partners each time is not a way to create a relationship that is iterative and gets better each time. One is a vendor relationship. The other is a partner relationship.

For premium publishers like us, the conversation naturally evolves toward becoming an AOR around certain verticals and creating long-term relationships that get you out of the RFP cycle and to a managed process. That allows a deeper level of access and partnership to the benefit of the publisher and brand.

What’s important to establish when you’re working with a brand or agency on a branded content deal?

Understanding at the beginning of the campaign what the key success metrics are.

Too often, folks get into branded content deals without having a clear understanding of where the client wants to be at the end of the campaign. We are challenging our salespeople and client strategy team to start at the end: What are your goals? What do you want to achieve? And then we reverse-engineer across our channels or creative opportunities to figure out the right mix.

What are the KPIs that are easy to drive with branded content, and which ones are difficult?

Our worst nightmare is 60% to 70% of the way through a campaign, a junior planner calls us and says the click-through rates are low. And it happens.

For us, it tends to be about engagement: shares, likes, time of completion and organic views. We do really well with organic views. We don’t have to buy much social amplification, which is distinct.

That’s a big problem you see with the influencer market right now. It’s paid, bought and bot-driven traffic. And almost every media company that’s six years old or more has a real challenge with [organic branded content distribution]. The engagement story is what separates us and gives us a big leg up.

How do you look at monetization of content on places you own, like the site and the app, versus social media?

Social is the lingua franca of Gen Z, where we are making sure we are creating sports content that young fans crave. The app is our home page. It’s where most of our O&O conversations happen. We are working on some deep development projects to continue to evolve the app and will have news to share next year.

The website is traditional O&O. I think of the website today the way a luxury brand would think of a store on Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue. It’s got to be beautiful, spacious and represent your brand. But the revenue you can generate isn’t what it was 10 years ago. It starts to lean more toward a branding exercise.

You’ve gone from being a part of a print and digital organization to a digital-only publication. Is that freeing?

Around here we have old media. But we think of old media as desktop. The legacy business here is banners and buttons.

But for an organization like this, even things that are relatively new on the outside seem old quickly. The pace here is what I find most exciting.

When you talk about old-school being “banners and buttons,” are you of the mindset that all banner media will go programmatic, while your team focuses on branded content?

Sometimes old-school is old-school for a reason: because it works. Even banners to some degree. If no one clicks, does it have no value? How many consumers saw it? How long is it on the screen?

Without clicks, it might not be as easily trackable as AT&T thought 20-something years ago when it launched the first-ever banner ad on Wired.com. Click-through rate as a metric for success set this industry back 20 years or so.

What will separate the winners from losers in the world of VC-backed publishing?

Right now, a lot of the independent publishers that have garnered press and accolades over the last few years are finding out that their valuation far exceeds their actual worth. They are crashing to earth with fewer opportunities than they once thought they had.

It will be interesting to see over the next couple years the ways they try to extract more value: what kind of licensing deals they do, what kind of ad opportunities they open up, to sustain some measure of revenue growth. There is a storm coming. It’s a scary time to be in a boat alone.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To go even deeper with Bleacher Report, check out this AdExchanger Talks podcast interview with CEO Dave Finocchio.

 

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