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Amber Bracegirdle is the Co-Founder of Mediavine Publisher Network. In this episode, we speak with Amber on how to build a successful publishing networking for sustainable blogger growth.

Podcast Transcription

State of Digital Publishing is creating a new publication and community for digital publishing and media professionals in new media and technology. In this episode, we speak with Amber Bracegirdle, co-founder of Media Vine Publisher Network, on how to build a successful publishing network for sustainable blogger growth. Let’s begin.

Vahe Arabian: Hi, Amber, how are you?

Amber Bracegirdle:  I’m good. How are you?

Vahe Arabian: I’m good. Thanks. Thanks for connecting. How’re your travels recently? You said that you’re going to some conferences.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. We’ve been to a few conferences. Most recent one was Everything Food in Salt Lake City. We got to hang out with about 525 food bloggers. It’s a pretty intense couple of days, but, now I’m back home with my kiddos and husband. Yeah. It’s good.

Vahe Arabian: That’s awesome to hear. Amber, I wanted to bring you onto this episode because you do work with a lot of publishers and bloggers, and you have the ad network as well. If I can pass it over to you just to give a bit of an introduction to the people who don’t know much about you, that’d be great.

Amber Bracegirdle: Yeah. My name is Amber Bracegirdle, which is a fun last name to pronounce. My husband is British, and that’s where that comes from. I am a co-founder of a company called Mediavine. We started out as bloggers ourselves. We have three sites that we own and operate, the largest of which is The Hollywood Gossip, has about 30 million page views a month. I personally run Food Fanatic, which is our food site. It was through Food Fanatic and the contributors that we have to that site that the biggest arm of our company sort of exploded in the last three years.

Amber Bracegirdle:  A couple of years ago, we were having trouble with our ad company. One of my co-founders is a programmer, and he’s the one that built all of our sites and all of this. He said, “I think I can build something that will allow us to do this better.” When he built it he had to build it to flex between our sites because they varied so widely in size. The Hollywood Gossip at the time, I think, was around 20 million page views a month, but Food Fanatic was around half a million. We had to have technology that could flex between those things without him having to program all day, all day, all day.

Amber Bracegirdle:  He built something, and within a couple of weeks we were out earning our ad company with remnant advertising. At that point, we realized that if we moved from remnant advertising to premium advertising with the technology we had built, we could solve all of our problems. That’s exactly what we did and then … All that technology was built for ourselves. Then we realized we … You know, I said something to one of our contributors about the fact that we were going to do that and the first question she said was, “Well, I’m having the same kind of problems with my ad company can you help me too?”

Amber Bracegirdle:  It kind of becomes this idea of, “Well, okay maybe we can help our contributors so that and be a voice for them because we’ve got these big sites and so advertisers kind of listen to us and we can sort of bring them in under the fold.” Originally the idea was we’ll just do this for our Food Fanatic contributors, and we started out with six of them in June of 2015. Last week we reached 33,00 bloggers that we work with.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Our company has grown from six to more than 3,000 bloggers that we work with to do their display advertising. Which is crazy insane. Something we never predicted, never purposely went out to do. It’s been incredible because we’re able to help these bloggers make a business. Our mission statement actually has nothing to do with ads; it’s we help content creators build sustainable businesses. That’s what our mission statement is. Has nothing to do with ads at all. Really it’s just about creating a better community making blogs better so that these small business owners can make something that they can then hand off to their kids. That’s our goal.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Along with that, we’re actually now developing Word Press plugins to help speed things up because our biggest complaint with ads, funnily enough, is site speed. We sort of do everything from a very different perspective than other ad companies. We do it from a perspective of we’re bloggers and we don’t want ads that slow down our sites, and we don’t want plugins that slow down our sites. That’s how we operate, and that’s how we build everything.

Vahe Arabian: That’s pretty impressive. I guess, just to ask you … You said that was mostly bloggers that are on the ad network. You think that bigger publishers would have joined if … Or, do you think they would have the same problem as small bloggers would have in the sense of the advertising?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Oh, absolute … I mean, yeah. They definitely have the same pain points. I mean, we work with sites of all sizes. As small as 25,000 sessions and as big as 30 million sessions. Everybody has the same, sort of, pain points when it comes to advertising. Ads are slow, creating the connections in order to get the premium advertising is hard work. The thing about Mediavine is that because we’re banded together we actually create this really attractive portfolio that allows an advertiser to sort of really target the reader that they want to target. We’re almost entirely a programmatic advertising shop. What that means is that all of our ads are targeted to the reader that the advertiser wants.

Amber Bracegirdle:  For example, when you go on Amazon and you look for something and then that ad follows you around the web, that’s programmatic advertising, right? It’s actually meant to be a better user experience. User experience is something that matters to everyone whether you are the biggest website on the web or the tiniest. Right? These are all the same pain points, and what we do is take all the heavy lifting, all the hard work, you know, doing all the data analysis to make sure that the ad positions are in the right place and are actually being seen by the reader and things like that. We do all of that with the technology we’ve created so that all of these content creators, whether it’s a new site or a tiny blogger talking about recipes, can concentrate on creating their content. That’s what they’re good at.

Vahe Arabian: Yeah. Definitely. Let’s take a step back, then. How were you able to grow the Hollywood Reporter and Food Fanatic, those properties, to get to that point where you then have the contributors?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Those sites have actually always been contributor sites. That’s something that we did right from the start, but the way … It’s kind of funny. The company, Mediavine as a company, was actually founded in 2004 by three of my co-founders as an SEO shop. They were doing SEO for other websites and realized that they could make more money simply by creating a website and doing this for themselves. They tried lots of different websites, but the one that stuck, and it’s hysterical if you ever meet these guys to know that this was what stuck, is The Hollywood Gossip. It was in the days of Perez Hilton and things like that. Basically, they built this site about what’s happening with the Kardashians and the Duggars and those sorts of viral things. That’s what that website was built from, but it was all about picking the right SEO terms and then getting links back from other Hollywood gossip style sites.

Amber Bracegirdle:  That is what grew that site, and that’s also what grew Food Fanatic is the idea of syndication. It’s something that I think is fairly controversial, especially in the food blogging space, which is interesting. Syndication is not a new idea, right? News services do it all the time. TV shows do it all the time. If you think about it in terms of a TV show, The Big Bang Theory struggled for its first couple of years until it got picked up for syndication by TBS where they would play it over and over again in the evening. Then the show sort of boomed, right? It went crazy and now it’s the most popular TV show on any network. The idea of syndication in the blogging world is exactly the same, is if you allow people to use your good content on their website then the search engines and everything like that see that you have good content, see that you have links back from these other quality websites, and they promote your content and move it higher in search results. That’s exactly how we grew The Hollywood Gossip and how we grew Food Fanatic.

Amber Bracegirdle:  With Food Fanatic, we started it out with contributors and we allow them to … They basically … We pay them to give us a post first. We run it, and then they’re allowed to run it on their website as soon as we’ve published, but they have to link back to our post in their post. They get to keep their content and they remain copyright holders and all of that stuff, but we get to run it first and then they’re syndicating it from us. That just helps us grow, and it actually helps them grow as well because we link back to them too.

Vahe Arabian: Do you ever feel … I have an SEO background as well, so I definitely understand some of the technical challenges that people and concerns people might have content syndication, but, like you said, if it’s a good site then the benefit outweighs the negatives I guess.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. I mean, we often see like people are always so concerned, “Well, what happens when your contributor outranks you?” And, I mean to us we say good because we also built an embeddable recipe card. Eventually, if someone prints that recipe they end up back at Food Fanatic anyway, so we don’t really care about that.

Amber Bracegirdle:  For us, it was more the symbiotic relationship with the contributors and helping them grow and exposing them to a new audience would help us grow. We very much operate along the lines of rising tides lift all ships, right. A lot of times we will outrank the contributor for a little while and then Google will do an algorithm change and the contributor will outrank us and vice versa. You know, it all depends on who’s visited what site with customized search results. There’s no point, like, really stressing about it. But the trend that we see over and over again is whether we rank higher or they rank higher we both lifted each other up together.

 Vahe Arabian: It’s a partnership, yeah. The syndication, I think that’s what a lot of publishers are also looking out for, as well. Especially, when you’re building out a community is that networking, and even traffic partnerships, so that definitely makes sense.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah, absolutely.

Vahe Arabian: With the network now how do you go about trying to build up the network? I mean, there’s obviously going to be the natural acquisition of people applying to be on the network.

Amber Bracegirdle:  It’s actually really funny. We have never done outbound marketing.

 Vahe Arabian: Really?

Amber Bracegirdle:  We don’t run Facebook ads, we’ve never emailed someone to pitch them, cold pitch them to come to join us. We literally have grown at the rate we’ve grown at by word of mouth. Really the only outbound marketing that we do that I would consider outbound marketing is the going to conferences and sponsoring them, or we’ll sponsor a retreat of one of our publishers, that sort of thing. That’s really it. That’s all we do.

 Amber Bracegirdle:  I don’t think that we could handle it if we actually did outbound marketing because we already grow at around 100 sites a week. Yeah. It’s just kind of funny because everyone’s like, “Well what are you doing?” Really what we’re doing is we’re just being good at ad management and also transparency. Transparency is really big, like the most important core value of our company. There have been times in the past where our technology has screwed up or one of our ad partners’ technology has screwed up and it meant that technically our publishers didn’t earn as much money as they think they did because there was a reporting error, and we have always made that right. Whereas I think other companies that I personally have experienced have always said, “Well, in your contract it says that you’re liable for any discrepancies and so we’re taking that money back.” To us that’s not right because it’s down to the technology’s fault, not the blogger’s fault, right?

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Amber Bracegirdle:  We’ve just kind of always operated from that space, and I think it sets us apart and so people talk about that. Then, we just kind of naturally grow.

Vahe Arabian: Does that mean in terms of transparency, for example, in that situation that you mentioned that if you weren’t saving, like … If that’s the faults of the technology and their saying that they earned more, then you’re paying out the difference or just simply letting them know? How do you define transparency?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Well, so we tell them. We tell them exactly what happened and then we also make sure that they are paid what was displayed on their dashboard.

Vahe Arabian: How do you interact with so many publishers? Is it through the system? Like, I’m sure there’s an inbox system or notification system.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah, we use a system called Intercom that I think is pretty popular across the web. You see it a lot with the sort of chat bubble in the right-hand corner of the screen. The thing is there’s only so much that a ticket system can do for you. What we do instead is we reinvest constantly in our publisher support department. It’s our fastest-growing department. I think there are 14 members of that department now, and we only have about 40 employees, so it is really the largest chunk of the department. We just keep that job opening listed. Like, we don’t ever take it down because we just keep growing. For us, we need the human aspect. That has been such an important and core part of how we’ve grown that we just keep reinvesting in bringing people on to give that personal touch. I mean I think our average response time, even on the weekends, is four hours.

Vahe Arabian: Do you have a dedicated team of those? That sounds like it for sure.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we have a dedicated team for answering queries and problems and launching and questions during launch and all that stuff. All of our publisher support team.

Vahe Arabian: Yeah. I’m sure there’re some marketing automation aspects of it as well, of onboarding you have put in place like the welcome messages and stuff like that?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah, which Intercom definitely does help with, and our director of publisher support is fantastic at processes. Her name is Nicole, and she has really streamlined that entire thing so that there’s not a lot of heavy lifting or human involvement. I mean, a lot of comes back to our technology, right? We run out of a single line of JavaScript, which we now run through a plugin. We used to not even run a plugin but with the advent of Ad Stop Text, which is an industry-wide thing meant to help prevent ad fraud, that is such a new thing and the file itself can be very brittle. Basically, as soon as one advertiser changes something that file has to get updated across the network.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Instead of running just the single line we run a plugin now. Literally, all you have to do is install that plugin, put your username in, and everything has already been tagged up on our side. Then it’s just run through the JavaScript. What we do in order to place the ads rather than giving you ad codes that you manually place, we tag everything using CSS selectors. That tells our ads where to insert themselves.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Then we also, because we run everything programmatically through an auction, like basically it’s an eBay auction, for your advertising, if someone isn’t going to meet the floor price that we have for the auction instead of back-filling it with some of those horrible back fat and toe fungus ads that you see that are just awful and pay you a fraction of a penny, instead of doing that, because they typically also slow down your site they tend to be the worst coded ads there are, we just collapse the ad so that it seems like it doesn’t even exist. It speeds up your site for a reader who wasn’t going to earn you but a penny. What we found was that by doing that and not having backfill, site speed increased exponentially, but it only meant about a 20 … Even on our biggest sites about a $20 difference in the bottom line at the end of the month. It’s completely and totally worth it.

Vahe Arabian: Just to recap. You, with the ads that you’re running now, there’s going to be times where you’ve collapsed the ads and that hasn’t made much difference in the bottom line for your publishers?

Amber Bracegirdle:  No, it doesn’t. It makes hardly a dent because what would run in that place instead would be a backfill ad that makes you a fraction of a penny.

Vahe Arabian: I mean, yeah. I think that’s a really good optimization. That’s a really good insight.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. It’s just not worth destroying the user experience for someone who’s not going to make you any money, you know what I mean?

Vahe Arabian: Yeah, 100%. With all sites being so different, how do you make sure that the CSS selector is dynamic enough to place them in the right areas of the website?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Well, the actual placement part is done by hand, by a human. We go and we look at the individual website and tag it up before launching with a human, but it only takes about 5-10 minutes to do that.

Vahe Arabian: All this is part of the onboarding process?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. It’s very streamlined and has been from the start. It was completely and totally an accident. It was just Eric, my co-founder, was being lazy. He didn’t want to have to do this all day long for our own sites, and so he sat back and he thought about how he could not have to do that. This is what he came up with. It ended up meaning that we could work with any website and launch them in about 15 minutes once we had the approvals from our ad partners in. It was accidental. It was genius on his part, but also completely accidental that it could work so well across as many sites as it does. There is a little bit of serendipity about it that we’re all pretty happy about, because it means we get to help a lot of people and have a lot of fun doing it.

Vahe Arabian: I’ve noticed that a lot of MarTech lenders and new companies, they really focus on the really simple problem, they don’t overcomplicate it, and that’s what makes them successful. It’s really good that you guys came to that point. What’s been some of the growing points or the learning pains that you’ve experienced in that time, I guess, besides learning a whole new area?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Keeping staffed to appropriate levels, so that we’re not all working 18 hour days has definitely been a hard thing for us, but I think that’s all startups, which is weird because we’re a startup, but also we’ve been in business for 14 years. That has definitely been a thing. We’re constantly looking for new talent because we’re developing things as well as having publisher support and marketing is going out to events. There’s a big portion of our company that is just simply about education and building better blogs. It’s not about advertising at all. We’re kind of always trying to grow both sides of that. Finding the right staff for that, that understands our mission and that we don’t necessarily care about the bottom line. We just want to help this community be the best it possibly can be, because they have the most valuable readers, and they need to be paid appropriately for that is definitely a thing.

Amber Bracegirdle:  I would also say coming to a point where you get so big that people start to see other motives in what you’re trying to do that aren’t actually true but they sort of decide that’s the narrative, and there’s not much you can do to change that, no matter what you say or do. It gets twisted. That was a surprise to me, but we always operate from that place of transparency. I guess so many people don’t that our transparency becomes suspect in some situations. Does that make sense?

Vahe Arabian: I understand that was in a previous to this as your startup, the bigger you are, the more that you have to defend your position you are at. I totally understand.

Amber Bracegirdle:  That was definitely something that we were not expecting, which I guess just comes from the fact that we were able to do our thing for so long, and probably our first 500 to 800 publishers, I knew personally. Either I was good friends with them or I at least knew of them through other friends because I am a blogger myself. I’ve been a food blogger since 2008. Yeah, as we get bigger and you encounter new personalities that you don’t have a history with, I think that’s where it becomes more and more interesting. You have to step back and think, “Okay, I can’t approach this the way I used to because we’re not the company we used to be.”

Vahe Arabian: It’s always dynamic. It’s always changing. You always have to try to think of new ideas.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. Just trying and guide the ship in the best way you know how just from that perspective of not knowing what it would be like to be from a place of this tiny little company where we were able to sort of do our own thing. Then, as we’ve grown, we’ve had to grow up and realize that we are bigger than that now, and we have to operate from a different place.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Luckily, we don’t have any outside investors or anything, so we’re still able to do the things we want to do. That’s not going to change. We have no interest in selling our company. We get offers all the time, and we turn them down because we have so many ideas and things that we want to do. Finding that place of still being who we are but also being sort of a big boy company is probably one of the things that it was a big learning curve for us.

Vahe Arabian: I understand. From the competitive landscape, I’ve noticed from my own that there are ad serving management companies. There’re a few. There’re not that many that I’m aware of. What are your thoughts about the competitive landscape? Do you think that there is a need for … I know that there’s also the aspect of bigger publishers trying to bring everything in the house given how, like you said, ads are mostly programmatic, and there’ve been a lot of errors in the past in trying to manage it externally. What do you see the competitive landscape to be at the moment in trying to build with some of the ad forum and some of those challenges?

Amber Bracegirdle:  It’s interesting. It’s expensive to do your own advertising. Direct sales and hiring a salesperson. Programmatic still has a sales aspect, and you need sales people for that. You can run entirely inside of the ad exchanges and not worry about that, but you will be closing yourself off to a lot of stuff. Having an ad management company, I think, actually saves you money in the long run, especially for a smaller blogger, but certainly for a big company. If you can save that money, why not because salespeople are usually some of the most expensive people you’ll hire?

Amber Bracegirdle:  In terms of competition, it’s kind of interesting. Nobody really does this the way that we do it, and so we kind of feel like we’re outliers to what’s traditionally going on, but that’s okay with us because we’re exceptionally obsessed with being forward thinking. There are other companies that somebody would compare us to simply because they also work with bloggers, and they also place ads, but that’s the only thing that the competitor would do; whereas, we are looking at the entire landscape and basically the entire internet. We internally joke all the time that we’re making the internet better one site at a time because we’ve forced our bloggers to care about things like site speed. We’ve convinced them to get better hosts. We’ve convinced them they don’t need all of these trackers running on their website and also thankfully so has GDPR. All these things that would slow down their site and make for a bad user experience, we’ve convinced them that they don’t need those things. It really does put us in a different place, because we’re doing all of that education.

Amber Bracegirdle:  I would like to see other companies doing that same kind of work because competition breeds great innovation. For right now, we just kind of focus on what we’re doing and don’t worry about anybody else.

Vahe Arabian: You mentioned quite a bit about community and education. This is a two-part question. Do you think that the fact that you’ve sponsored conferences and attended conferences, how much of that indirectly has helped you get more word of mouth generated? The second part is we spoke about as well and you have your theory of content podcast, and you’re doing education initiatives. What are some of the education, other things that you’re doing, and how do you think that also plays a part in building the trust and building that network that you guys are aspiring to build?

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Amber Bracegirdle:  I would say going to conferences is a good portion of how we grow and how we’ve grown probably after our first year. Just getting out there and being knowledgeable. We don’t come at these conferences from a place of, “Let us tell you who we are and sell ourselves to you.” We come from a place of, “Let’s help educate you.” In that Everything Food conference, I went and did a live theory of content podcast with my podcast partner Josh. Eric came and spoke about ad tech. We know that bloggers don’t necessarily care about ad tech, but it’s something that we personally feel they should because when they’re empowered and know how this stuff works, they can push for people to be better whether they work with us or not.

Amber Bracegirdle:  That’s kind of always been our thing is that we want to tell you more than you want to know because when you know how any of this stuff works, you are empowered. We’ve got things like we’re planning Mediavine University where we can do all sorts of stuff. My marketing associate Jenny could tell you more. Mediavine University is her brainchild, and she’s got all kinds of stuff. We’re also sponsoring a lot of retreats that bloggers themselves are putting together. We don’t really care if they are bloggers that work with us or not, but we want people out there sharing their skills and teaching things. Somebody doing a video retreat, we want to help support them, because the video is becoming such a major part of blogging at this point. Stuff like that is kind of the direction that we’re moving in, in terms of education.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Then speaking at conferences. We talk a lot about how to work with brands and do influencer marketing. The podcast itself, I think, is a great way. It’s funny because I didn’t know anything about SEO six years ago. Nothing at all. Everything I learned, I learned from the guys in our building at Food Fanatic and also having conversations with Josh. It’s all so straightforward and easy to me now, but that’s because they don’t ever overcomplicate what SEO actually is. That’s simply having good content that’s easily found.

Amber Bracegirdle:  There’re no tricks or games or, “Add this thing to your website and Google will suddenly put you in the top spot for everything,” which I see a lot of other SEO people talking about because it makes them sound good and it feels like something a blogger can do that will help them rather than just constantly writing content. That can’t possibly be the secret to it, right? That is the secret. It’s just to constantly write good content. I think that it just all goes back to what we want to do is be transparent and say, “Here are the things that have made us grow. We know that they can make you grow. Let us help you do them.”

Vahe Arabian: With the SEO like, “If you’ve got the good foundations, then your content marketing or your content efforts just compound.” There’s a recent post that I wrote about that, and I totally agree that both work hand in hand. It’s just a compound effort exponentially.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. It’s not rocket science, but some folks like to make it seem that way so you’ll pay them money.

Vahe Arabian: Unfortunately, or they model PBNs or something like that, which overcomplicates everything anyway, which I don’t agree with. You mentioned on the point about the education that you want to give more than people expect. How that’s what helps empower them. That’s an interesting point that you make because not all the publishers that come from big publishing companies the approach they might be taking or some of those people I’ve spoken with in previous episodes, they say that, “We look for under-serving audiences. We look for their needs, and we try to cater to that.” Why are you taking that other approach?

Amber Bracegirdle:  I think because when we decided to start doing this, we realized that we had more knowledge than the average blogger, and that did not seem right. These are exceptionally smart, passionate people that simply want to do the best with their business. Capitalizing off of that does not feel right to us. It never has. It’s one of the reasons that as soon as we grew to a certain size and could make the change, we changed our revenue share so that the more you grow, the more you get back. It’s not traffic based. It’s an ad impression based, because we really drive our bloggers to write good content that is long and engaging because it helps their sites in every aspect, right? It keeps time on site high. It keeps dwell time low … I mean, sorry. It keeps dwell time high, bounce rate low. Those are the things we encourage them to do simply from an SEO aspect, but it also makes their advertising money get better.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Everything that we do, we do with that in mind. The idea that we want to make their site and their content better. Changing that revenue share was like a no-brainer because we did have a little bit of pushback, because we’ve always had this core value of treating everyone the same. That’s exactly what we do, but its kind of like this is an incentive for you to create better content. But you don’t have to get more traffic to reach these goals. You need to get more ad impressions, and you get more ad impressions by having more content. Does that make sense?

Vahe Arabian: Yeah, but people might naturally think, “Okay, well, if I need to get more ad impressions, I need to get more traffic.”

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. I mean, that is one avenue to it, but the people that grow their traffic with terrible blog posts that aren’t long or engaging or whatever, the advertisers don’t respond as well to them. If they were growing their traffic and also making better content, they would make even more money.

Vahe Arabian: Can it be like less is more so you can really focus on creating good posts. For those bloggers out there who are listening to this, couldn’t they just make less blog posts, make sure that it’s really engaging so that they can build ad impressions that way?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. If you have content that is engaging and people are staying on site for a long time, and they’re scrolling for a long time, and they’re staying engaged in what you’ve written, advertisers will pay for that. One of the things that we do that literally no other company in this space does is that we lazy load all ads that are below the fold. That means that when someone loads your website, they don’t exist, so they don’t impact your site load time. Much like Facebook where when you keep scrolling through your feed on your phone you continue to see ads, if you have a 10,000-word post with 50 photos in it, we’re going to keep serving ads as long as the reader is engaged. We’re not going to load a bunch of ads at the bottom of the post that they never scroll to.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Every ad that we serve has an incredibly high viewability score because we won’t serve it until it’s actually going to be seen. Advertisers pay top dollar for that. It is literally the first time in the history of advertising … Advertising’s been around since Roman times, right? This is the first time in the history of advertising that advertisers can know whether or not their ad was seen. We have the technology now for them to know, and so for us, that’s been something that we’ve always built our technology around because it didn’t make sense to us to serve an ad that wasn’t seen. That’s providing no value to the advertiser, and it also slows down your site, which ruins the user experience. By catering to the user experience, we’re also catering to what the advertiser wants, and they will pay more for that.

Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. With that in mind, are you planning on creating new product variations around your ad product for Mediavine? Are you looking to create for video or different other different types of ad quality?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Oh yeah. We dubbed 2018 the year of video. We’ve already put out two new video products. We worked really hard to build some stuff that was nice and fast for SEO but also was the right technology to keep the viewability score high. What we saw for a long time, and we actually lost some publishers over, was our competitors’ building stuff, building video stuff, that wasn’t seen by anyone. It would start to play below the fold or whatever, and it would serve a video ad, but it would serve a video ad that was never seen. It provided no value to the advertiser, and it slowed down the site, so a lot of times people were clicking away before the ad could load, especially on mobile.

Amber Bracegirdle:  First, that was not a good experience. It took us about two years to build the video products that we have now, but we personally think it was worth it because our CPMs for those video units are ridiculous. Some of them are as high as $30. As high as $15 on mobile. Having a $15 CPM on a mobile device where there aren’t cookies that they can access to know exactly who they’re advertising to is ridiculous. It’s unheard of, but we created a video unit that sits in the bottom of the browser window. We call it the Video Adhesion. It sits in the bottom of the mobile browser window and is constantly seen. It’s so revolutionary we actually applied for a patent on it. We keep working on stuff like that.

Vahe Arabian: How about mobile? SEO, Mobile index is now rolling out, and the content format has changed … Now it’s more acceptable to have an accordion or collapsible content, which before on desktop wasn’t the same thing. How are you adapting, even though it’s responsive design, how are you adapting the advertising to cater to better mobile ad performance? The second part of the question is, do you think that mobile conversion rate and ad performance is going to come in par with the desktop? I don’t see that from my perspective yet to have reached that point.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. It hasn’t reached that point yet. It’s probably going to take some time. Advertising as an industry, the actual people that want to put something in front of a reader’s face, those guys move exceptionally slow. They always have. It is literally Mad Men. They are getting better about mobile CMPs. A couple of years ago we could never get anything over a dollar. Now, the average is three to four dollars. Then this video unit is just bananas. I think it is moving in the right direction, but it’s the same thing as viewability, right? You would think that the minute the technology was available that to only pay for viewed ads that they all would’ve jumped on it. But they haven’t. It’s taken them several years, and it is slowly moving in that direction to where they’re only going to pay for ad impressions that were viewed, but it’s taking a lot longer than any of us certainly expected.

Amber Bracegirdle:  In terms of what we’re doing for mobile technology, probably 80% of the traffic on our network is mobile, so we’re constantly reevaluating what we need to be doing for this. I couldn’t speak to the actual technology changes that we have in the pipeline, because I haven’t talked to my developers about that, but I know that that is one of the most important things to their job. The two things that they focus on first are mobile and video.

Vahe Arabian: Are they focusing on AMP as well? AMP, I’m sure you’ve seen reports are from Shop Beat and mobile companies about how massively people are trying more to fill up traffic?

Amber Bracegirdle:  It’s interesting. AMP does not … It’s a long story. We actually were the first ad company to have an AMP approved ad in our space of ad management stuff, and we’ve always supported it, but advertisers are not quick to jump on that bandwagon, especially because AMP ads require a lot more coding. They’re just a lot more work, which means they’re more expensive, which means not a lot of people do it, and so there’s less competition for the auction.

Amber Bracegirdle:  When our bloggers run AMP, we actually see their earnings go way, way down, because as soon as that signal is in place, search engines automatically switch them over to AMP, whether the reader tried to go to the regular mobile page or the AMP page. The same thing happens with Pinterest. Pinterest has a flag for … We actually figured out. We did some testing and figured out that it was related to the Rich Pins flags. Rich Pins and AMP enabled with the Pinterest mobile app, from that point on, as soon as you got that AMP flag, you were being redirected to the AMP page in the Pinterest browser. We would see people’s earnings just halve overnight because so much of our network get their traffic from Pinterest.

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Amber Bracegirdle:  We’ve definitely found that currently, it’s not worth turning that on. For The Hollywood Gossip, AMP was a wonderful thing that we deployed there because it’s a news site, and so those are getting rewarded in the carousel. For Food Fanatic, AMP was a horrible idea. Google has actually admitted that, other than news sites, they are not rewarding sites for having AMP enabled. You’re not getting in the carousel over somebody else who has better content than you. It just kind of was like, “Well, that’s not worth doing, because you’re going to lose all of your income for something that’s not helping you grow.”

Vahe Arabian: It’s interesting that you said that. You’re saying that you see more news sites, even if they get traffic, it’s decreasing the revenue?

Amber Bracegirdle:  The revenue. Yeah, it’s decreasing the revenue big time, because the average CPM for an AMP ad, I think, is like $0.60, and the average CPM for a regular Mediavine ad is like $2.50.

Vahe Arabian: That’s a massive difference.

Amber Bracegirdle:  It’s a huge, huge difference. There’ve been many, many bloggers that we’ve helped walk back AMP. We’re keeping the support there because we hope that advertisers do eventually embrace it because we are all for a faster mobile web, but until they do, it’s not worth leaving all that money on the table.

Vahe Arabian: What do you think advertisers have to do to overcome the technical hurdles, like you said, because it’s going to cost a lot to up new technology?

Amber Bracegirdle:  You know, other than them, advertisers, hiring more programmers that get better at this stuff and can release it faster, I don’t know much what they could do. AMP is so restrictive in what it allows through that you’d have to have people that are AMP experts creating the code around the advertisement. At some point, that becomes cost prohibitive for them to even push an ad out and get the return that they want from it.

Vahe Arabian: That’s pretty case and simple in that. What are you looking at moving forward from now to the end of this year for both Mediavine and for your publishers and bloggers that are on your network? What are some of the things that you’re looking forward to achieving?

Amber Bracegirdle:  We’re about to release our first non-control panel plugin. We have Mediavine Create coming out this month. It starts out as a recipe card, so it’s marking everything up in Schema and all that good stuff, but it’s more robust than pretty much any recipe card on the market in terms of the things that it offers and the user interface and all this stuff. As a food blogger, I’m extremely excited about it. The roadmap for that, the reason why we’re calling it Mediavine Create instead of Mediavine Recipes or something like that, is that this card is going to be the first of its type to also cater to other niches that have instructable ideas. Craft and DIY. They want to provide their readers with printable … What’s the word I’m looking for? Printable instructions but also a supply list. If you’re going to do a craft that requires …

Amber Bracegirdle:  The big thing in crafting right now I think is slime, which is like my niece is obsessed with this stuff. It’s this gooey stuff that you make, and you can just play with it. Right? Kind of like the stress balls that you used to buy, but it’s homemade and all of this stuff. You need glue and borax or contact solution and glitter and all this stuff. If you get the craft store and you don’t remember what’s in all this stuff, that can be annoying. That’s something that could easily be printed, right? Typically, craft bloggers don’t have a printable card that they can offer their readers that also has instructions and stuff like that or they resort to using a recipe card. The problem with that is that the recipe card will then mark their non-food ingredients up in Schema as food. Google will ding you for that. You can actually get a manual action against you for that.

Vahe Arabian: Have you seen that happen?

Amber Bracegirdle:  I have seen it happen. Yeah. We thought, “Well, for us, the recipe card is one the most viewable places for us to put an advertisement, so why not provide that, solve a problem for the community, but also give them an additional place to advertise?” We work with a ton of craft and DIY bloggers. That’s coming.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Then eventually on the roadmap we’re going to put something out similar, but we have some different ideas around it for travel. Potentially financial bloggers. After that, I think, on the roadmap is a social media sharing plugin, because they’re all terrible and slow, and they break blogs all the time. We want to do a social sharing plugin. We’re building a theme, which I think will be out in 2019. We’re just really … The awesome thing about what we’re doing is we solved the monetization portion. We solved how to make money as a company. Now we can just go and make really cool stuff; whereas you look at the other companies that started by making really cool stuff but had no way to make money, they’re now getting investors or looking for ways to sell this and create subscription models and things like that. We don’t have to do any of that, so it makes it really cool because we’re … Mediavine Create is going to be free, and you don’t have to be a Mediavine blogger to use it. We’re just letting anybody can have it.

Vahe Arabian: You’re creating innovation on a bigger scale.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. Yeah. We want to make … This is the first card, instructible card, that has been built with site speed, user experience, and advertising in mind. All at the same time using blogger feedback, talking to advertisers about what they would want to see in this space, and we’re obsessed with SEO and site speed, so we just brought that to the table. Then we hired a bunch of really smart developers to help Eric and built this card. We’re really, really excited about that.

Amber Bracegirdle:  The other thing is the video products. We continue to work really hard on the video products that we have coming out. Our video player is getting playlist functionality added. We’re going to be doing playlists on that mobile adhesion unit. Just more and more opportunities for ads to serve to your users and make you money, but also for you to feature your content.

Vahe Arabian: I look forward to seeing the results from that. Have you ever thought about native and looking at content recommendation?

Amber Bracegirdle:  Oh yeah. We work with a couple of companies like TripleLift and Sharethrough that are in our auction. You’ll see them on our sites if they win the auction. We don’t just let them run. They have to win the auction. The way that it works is they, along with all the other ad partners that we have, go into the auction and whoever is willing to pay the blogger the highest bid gets to serve their ad. You may not always see a TripleLift ad because they weren’t the highest bidder.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Then, we have a partnership with ZergNet where they have built a traffic exchange for our Mediavine bloggers. Half of the unit is a content recommendation that they pay for it, like if someone clicks on it then you get paid a CPM for it. The other half of the content recommendation is content from within your niche, and the top posts in your niche. Basically, if someone clicks on one of those, then you’re owed a click, and your content gets filled into that ad unit across the network until someone else clicks back to your site.

Vahe Arabian: Understood. You still want to use the partnership group or native and not look at building something?

Amber Bracegirdle:  For now. For now. TripleLift and Sharethrough are really good at it, and so rather than reinvent the wheel to start with … It’s kind of similar to GumGum, right? GumGum does in image ads, and they’re really, really good at it. They’ve built something that is really, really spectacular. For us, rather than reinvent the wheel and have the maintenance of that, and also try to get the adoption of that from our advertising partners who already have a relationship with GumGum, it just makes sense to negotiate a deal with GumGum where our publishers get a better rate than if they would work with GumGum on their own because we are such a large network of people with valuable traffic.

Vahe Arabian: You got to play to your strengths, like you said. Absolutely great. Just to I guess finish off, I just want to ask you more around your tips and advice for a) your career advice and b) if someone is going to be in your shoes, what advice would you give and what to get to the point where you are right now? I know you went through some of the lessons and learnings, but just more across that.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yes. It’s funny. I was actually asked this question the other day by someone. In terms of career, it’s kind of funny. I have a teaching degree, and I spent 13 years as a fraud analyst. There is no reason that I should be in the career that I’m in right now, but I adore it. I think that one of the things that are nice is, or the reason that I’m here, is I never stopped learning. Even when I was working full-time as the fraud analyst at Travelocity, I never stopped learning about technology. I started my blog when I was there and started learning about blogging and recipe writing and all of these things that were sort of a side passion. Then, I’ve always been into graphic design. I grew up with an uncle who was in advertising, and he let me intern for him in the summers. I have a base in there and actually did graphic design as a degree for a little while before I switched to teaching.

Amber Bracegirdle:  It kind of gave me this really widely varied field of interest that kind of blows my mind every day the stuff that I use for my job every day that is stuff that I just picked up along the way when I was 16 years old. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I would just say be open to never stop learning. Don’t be done with that. There’re so many people I know that are like, “Oh, I hate reading, or I don’t want to read, or I don’t want to learn.” It’s kind of like, “Well, if you’re doing that, that’s fine. Obviously, you do you, but you’re closing yourself off to a lot of opportunities that you may not even realize.”

Amber Bracegirdle:  When I started working for the guys, I was just going to help them build a food site. I had no interest in SEO. I just wanted to help them connect with food bloggers and all this stuff, and they started teaching me about SEO. I found it so interesting that it became a passion. Now, it’s how we’ve grown Food Fanatic. Out of Food Fanatic is how we grew Mediavine. You have to be open to that. You have to be open to that kind of stuff.

Amber Bracegirdle:  I would say in order to get to where I am today or to where the company is today, just be true to yourself and be transparent. I have never once sold someone on what Mediavine is. I just tell you what we are and what we do, and if you’re interested, cool. If you’re not, I really don’t care. I don’t want to ever pressure someone into what we’re doing here. It’s not the right fit for every person, but I think if we just lay it out there, “This is who we are, this is what we do,” then people will respond to that appropriate. Like attracts like. If we’re just honest and open and say, “This is the stuff we do,” then people will gravitate to that. I think if you do that as a human or as a company, you get better returns.

Vahe Arabian: Amber, thank you so much for your time and going through everything today, so thank you.

Amber Bracegirdle:  Yeah. You’re welcome.

Thank you for joining us on this episode of the State of Digital Publishing Podcast. Listen to past and upcoming episodes across all major podcast networks. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and join our community groups. Finally, visit stateofdigitalpublishing.com for premium information, resources, and become a member today. Until next time.