@SES: A Conversation With Miva

Between sessions at SES New York, I had the chance to sit down with Alex Vlasto, head of global communications for Miva. The company is moving in some interesting directions, shown most recently by the deal it formed with Conde Nast to be the exclusive contextual ad provider across its network of magazine Web sites.

Miva’s higher degree of contextual ad placement around content was a big selling point for Conde Nast, and will be a selling point for certain types of online publishers and verticals going forward.

In short, Miva operates on a scale that allows it to better customize contextual ads to its publisher partners, than can be done in more pervasive contextual ad programs like Google AdSense. This works well with dynamic content (such as magazines) because it has filters in place that are integrated with rotating content.

Contextual vs. Content Advertising
The higher degree of contextuality here gets us into semantic muddy waters because we’re talking about adding more contextuality to a form of advertising known by name as “contextual.” The key is that newspaper and magazine content can be better served by a contextual ad platform with more considered ad placement than those designed for a broad universe of Web sites (a publisher network).

“There is contextual advertising and there is content advertising,” clarified Vlasto, characterizing the latter as the more considered ad placement around magazine and newspaper content.

In a stealthy sales strategy, Miva took screenshots of the AdSense placements across Conde Nast Web sites and showed the publisher where the contextual placements weren’t as targeted as it might hope. For example, Vanity Fair’s Web site had contextual ads for brands that were of a lower class than those with which the magazine wished to associate. Though it was a contextual match with what is on the page, it wasn’t a cultural match with the publisher.

For the same reason, the dynamic content that newspapers are serving makes them receptive to a more considered contextual ad placement engine, according to Vlasto.

“If there is a newspaper story about a train crash, you don’t want to have contextual ads for train tickets,” said Vlasto, who claims these types of scenarios happen more than most publishers realize.

The Verticalization of Search
For the same reason, Miva will take a vertical approach to its business development efforts on the publisher side. On the advertiser side its Precision network will reflect this approach by being more attuned to certain verticals that advertisers can buy into.

This is a strategy that has a great deal of opportunity as shown by Marchex, a company that deserves a nod for its work in doing just this, while also partnering with Yellow Pages publishers and a who’s who list of publishers including BusinessWeek, USA Today and Forbes. Marchex’s Mark Peterson points out that this is in fact a strategy that was born at Industry Brains, a contextual ad outfit the company acquired in 2005.

This brings more relevant traffic, according to Vlasto, to vertical Web sites  a concept given more and more weight lately in the online advertising space, as echoed in yesterday’s social networking session. The Precision network is also an attempt to provide a different price point that’s a higher margin, lower volume spend than more widely distributed contextual ad networks, which it also provides.

Mobile Local Search on Everyone’s Radar
Lastly, a discussion of Miva is apropos to the topic of the week: Google’s new free 411 product. As Matt Booth pointed out earlier in the week, Google could build an opt-in SMS-based contextual ad serving platform into this product, similar to what Miva has done with much success in the U.K. with its partnership with 118 118.

The differences in mobile advertiser adoption in the U.S. will make this a challenge, according to Vlasto, but Google should be able to push it forward. It’s telling that it has already captured the hearts and minds of media and lots of users, even though other more evolved products already exist in the market (Tellme, Jingle, 1-800-YellowPages). How Google invests in and markets this product among its many expanding products, will determine its long-term traction and ability to push the overall free DA market forward. Microsoft’s investment to position Tellme could do the same, as Greg Sterling points out.

I’ll continue blogging from SES as I can, including a briefing with Local.com about its increased exposure and evolving local search destination.

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