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Hearst Reboots Mobile Mag Sites in Ad Push

Will bet on new rich media units to draw advertisers to small screen

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There’s no question about it­—mobile traffic is booming as people spend more time hunched over their little screens. For magazines, it represents an opportunity to capture more readers and try to convert them to paying ones.

But advertising on small screens hasn’t kept up. Research by Flurry Analytics found that mobile gets 23 percent of consumers’ time but only 1 percent of ad spending. In turn, advertisers are reluctant to commit to a medium where screen sizes and audiences are all over the place, not to mention measurement and ad rates.

At Hearst Magazines, mobile drives 25 percent of its Internet traffic (and 40 percent at mothership Cosmopolitan, heading toward 50 percent by year’s end), helped by the decision to convert its sites to HTML5, growth of social media and proliferation of the devices themselves. But mobile ad revenue was expected to represent only a 10th of Hearst Magazines’ total digital dollars in 2013. “There’s a really big revenue opportunity around mobile,” said Grant Whitmore, vp of digital. “Mobile devices are the next frontier as a platform opportunity.”

Whitmore thinks mobile can be much bigger, though. The company is rolling out responsive design across all its sites starting in early 2013, so that the content is tailored to the users’ expectations depending on what size device they’re using. So while longform might be the first thing readers see on a brand’s site, the mobile experience might focus on news and tips. First out of the gate will be Road & Track and Town & Country. Though the brands are relatively small—T&C doesn’t even have a website to speak of—they were next in line for digital overhauls, Whitmore said.

To offset the cost of all this additional work, Hearst needs to attract more advertising to those sites. To that end, Hearst digital CRO Kristine Welker is betting big on new rich media mobile ad units including the IAB’s Rising Stars, as well as in-house units. “We’re creating experiences that speak to the nuance of the device,” she said, “because if you just stick with banners, that’s not going to add value.”

Such rich media units will become more appealing to advertisers as they start to see that the mobile screen­—like the desktop before it—can be a brand-building platform, said Dave Martin, svp of media at Ignited. He added a caveat: “The challenge is, how do you serve up ads that don’t ruin the experience for consumers? If you start cluttering my life with ads, I’m going to move on.”

And, of course, there are many other barriers to mobile advertising, among them the need to balance innovation with standardization in a still- fragmented medium. So while it’s “good and interesting” that Hearst is creating such units, said David Cohen, chief media officer at Universal McCann, “that is challenging for those that aren’t going to create ads for one particular publisher.”