Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo,  knows he has an engaged, intelligent audience, and he’s hoping that with the right platform they’ll start interacting with ads like they do content.
A few months ago, Marshall implemented the "conversation ad" onto TPM’s website in order to coax readers to engage with on-site advertisements. The conversation ads run on the right rail of the page and utilize the 300x600 IAB ad unit with a few added twists to draw readers to the content. “The way we see it, display works great and we do get great CTRs that way,” Marshall said. “But if you really use the potential that the digital native environment has to offer, then multiples of that success are possible.”
Marshall told Adweek he wanted his ad sets to mimic the engagement TPM sees from readers across the platform and decided to implement the new units so that readers could have real conversations with companies and brands relevant to TPM’s policy wonk audience. Advertisers so far have included CurrentTV, Bill Maher and companies like the French alternative energy company, Areva. In all of TPM’s conversation ads, users can interact with high-res images, branded content, and then send an email to the company to receive a direct response. This direct dialogue is what Marshall hopes will foster meaningful clicks and engagement with advertisers, even if they're not flashy or sexy brands.
While the conversation ad is technically the first of its kind, the idea is not new. Publishers are obsessively tweaking and fiddling with display ads, creating real-time opportunities for advertisers to update ads for relevance and targeting purposes (a feature in TPM’s ad unit). Some critics look at innovations in display advertising as too little too late, arguing that online audiences are accustomed to tuning out display units. While it is easy for advertisers to get excited about advances in the area, many feel that the code on display has yet to be cracked .
TPM, however, has seen some success after their initial campaigns, touting between 10.2 percent and 37 percent overall engagement rates as well as a 9.4 percent interaction rate on their scroll to read features. Marshall is optimistic about the conversation ad but notes as with most innovative brand advertising, it is not always easy to get advertisers thinking creatively. "I think when it actually comes down to it, a lot of agencies and advertisers kind of pull back—not because they’re afraid, but they get comfortable in the way they’ve done it," Marshall said. "There is more and more willingness over time. I think most advertisers, most agencies get that there is a lot more potential in digital advertising than is being used."