The ad-scape is changing rapidly and spending in the US is expected to reach $20 billion. If content is king, then Kenna Ranson is queen. She is the Director of Ad Products & Revenue at Ellation. With over 20 million registered users across multiple platforms, Ellation (the parent company of Crunchyroll) is the 7th largest video streaming service with a niche focus on Japanese Anime.
I spoke with Kenna to learn more about the dynamic world of digital advertising and how it is evolving:
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have a passion for analytics & data. I started my career in market research and marketing, which led to advertising in the latter half of my career. I have worked for all types of companies - large, agency, super small startup and love the pace of the startup world.
How did you end up in this industry and in your role?
I ended up in gaming over four years ago with a super small startup where I was required to wear a lot of hats. While my main focus was on researching users and building out marketing campaigns around them, I also did a lot of partnership work, business development deals and even setting up revenue generating initiatives. One of these was bringing our advertising in-house. The company brought in a consultant to get that set up, and I took over managing that aspect of the business. I love the tangible results that revenue brings every day/week/month and the strategy required to really plan and optimize that side of the business.
What does your company do? What is unique about it?
We are the 10th largest video streaming service with a niche focus on Japanese Anime. What I love most about what we do is how we've not only created deep relationships with the creators in Japan, but also have created a deep and personal relationship with our audience. Our brand and community team is amazing and really know what it takes to connect with a young and passionate millennial audience.
How much traffic mobile app generates?
We're not just on mobile; we also are on web and several connected living room devices like Xbox, Playstation, Roku and Chromecast. We boast an impressive 20MM registered users across all these platforms.
Describe your typical day. What is the greatest challenge you have to face in your role? And the greatest reward?
My days often vary pretty significantly, but I guess it usually involves starting off the day checking data and systems, checking in with remnant partners via weekly/bi-weekly meetings, answering questions from our sales team, preparing reports for finance and our executive team, checking in with our product/engineering team on any open issues we may have to determine status. The greatest reward is that everything we focus on results in some sort of concrete number being reported out - it's like a constantly changing report card and I love having that immediate feedback.
How do you manage your ad inventory? Do you use mediation? Why or why not?
Our direct sales team through Fullscreen (our sister company) has first rights to sell our inventory; anything not sold by them is then filtered out to various mediation partnerships that we have set up based on geography and device.
If you use mediation, do you use waterfalls in your strategy? What is the biggest challenge with this approach?
Yes and yes. We have a unique technical set up that is our biggest challenge with our waterfall --- but I would say we face what most publishers out there do --- making sure you are getting the best CPM for every single piece of inventory and ensuring you aren't losing any of your inventory along the way.
What tools do you use to optimize your ad revenue? What products did you test? What worked what didn't?
We rely mostly on our ad server and custom reporting that we've built through it. We've been exploring third party tools like Ad Juster, but so far haven't embarked on any integrations yet. I think there is going to be a lot of movement in the industry with the continued rise of programmatic and improved ad server functionality and the industry's ability as a whole to really mine big data in meaningful ways.
How does your team look and what are the responsibilities each of the team member?
We have a fairly small team internally. There are three of us: myself, an Ad Ops Director and an Ad Ops Manager. We all work together to make sure the business runs smoothly every single day - from partner management, to troubleshooting technical issues to trafficking.
We also work very closely with our direct sales team through our sister company Fullscreen. We made the decision last summer to create some efficiencies and streamline areas of operation across Otter Media properties; Advertising made a lot of sense as Fullscreen has a pretty powerful sales team behind them. We see all of the opportunities that come through and help guide how Crunchyroll can be included in the offering. They also pose questions around our data and technical capabilities for helping brands reach an audience that is generally pretty difficult to get to: tech savvy millennial males.
How would you describe the culture of your company?
Right now, we are really in that mid-size start up phase of high velocity growth.There's a lot of passion, a lot of change, a lot of opportunity to influence and be agile to accomplish our goals. The energy around our office is tangible; you feel it as soon as you walk in. There's encouragement to really take ownership and drive change, and we're really empowered as a team to voice what we need to accomplish our goals.
What is the biggest pain in your job?
Right now, it's having access to really granular data that allows us to troubleshoot on technical problems quickly and effectively. Often if we see something a bit funky in our numbers, it takes us longer than we would like to diagnose and resolve. I'm excited to really capitalize on products that will help us here as they come to market.
How often are you trying new and innovative products that claim to improve your performance?
All the time. The digital advertising industry is quickly evolving and improving, and you have to continue to grow along with it or you will get left in the dust. We're always looking at technical improvements we can make and/or partners we can integrate with who will help us achieve our goals. At the end of the day, advertising is more than just making money. It's ensuring we are serving our audience ads that resonate with them and provide a continuous entertainment experience while they are consuming our content. That said, it's a bit of a balancing act for us, as we're also trying to encourage our users to subscribe to one of our monthly packages (one of the value propositions being an ad-free experience!). Still, we do know it's important not to alienate anyone with a poor ad experience. We're always looking at ways to do better and welcome user feedback to keep us on our toes.
What do you consider a good monetization strategy via ads?
A lot of businesses rely almost exclusively on ad revenue; I think a lot of people often don't realize that's the foundation of top tier companies like Google and Facebook. We're a bit different since we offer both a paid subscription service and ad-supported free service to our users. But at the end of the day, it's about maximizing the pool of inventory you do have. We have a lot of conversations internally about levers we can control. Growing our user base is outside of the ad team's jurisdiction, but what we can do is ensure that every opportunity we have to monetize an ad is optimized through the highest CPM we can achieve and the highest fill rate we can get. This comes down to curating a really effective direct sales team, supplemented by partnerships with the best networks in the industry and a really honed reporting system that captures granular data across all of our platforms in all of the countries in which we operate.
What do you read on regular basis that help you stay on top of new trends and strategies?
I don't think I'm particularly very novel in my strategies here. I follow industry experts and colleagues on LinkedIn. I monitor TechCrunch and Slashdot. I've signed up to several advertising mailing lists, and most of our top partners send regular communications with happenings in the industry.
What apps/companies in your opinion do an excellent job when it comes to monetization? In general, or as it relates to ads?
I think Spotify was one of the first in the music industry to really nail the subscription value proposition; while they have a free ad supported version available to users, often ads aren't enough for people to make the switch (think Pandora and Songza). I had been saying for YEARS that Songza needed to make selected playlists available for offline listening and then Songza came around with this feature...and I was an immediate convert.
I'm really intrigued right now by the trend we're seeing in subscription boxes ---BirchBox, Le Tote, LootCrate---they are really on fire, and it will be interesting to see how this industry progresses.
While a lot of people complain, I think Facebook is doing an amazing job with ads. I find I often get super relevant ads that I actually click on, and it leads me to a product or experience I otherwise wouldn't have discovered. Sometimes they are a bit too targeted, though. I remember when my status was engaged on facebook I was getting way too many wedding ads, and then shortly after I got married it was all pregnancy/baby ads..It got a little tiring and annoying to be so typecasted.
I'm really intrigued with how Snapchat is approaching advertising.They are really playing around with embedding multiple 10 second clips into public snap stories. What I'm really excited to see grow and progress, though, is the world's move towards influencer marketing. We're now able to follow celebrities or more regular folks on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat...and while the concept of product placement isn't new, there's this big move to have really natural and authentic promotions within these folks' programming.
It's a fascinating time out there in terms of marketing and reaching audiences and I love having a front row seat to the action!
Who do you consider an industry expert? What qualities make that person stand out from the rest?
This one is a bit tough for me. I feel like I follow so many people and sources it's hard to pick just one.
I'm going to draw on an article I read a few months ago that quoted Scott Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Technology of the Internet Advertising Bureau. The gist of the article is that Cunningham really admits that the advertising industry went too far with a focus on revenue and completely lost the pulse on the user experience.I think that takes a lot of integrity to really own up like that. And it's true --- people have gotten so fed up that ad blocking has become a big issue and now it's hurting the industry. For us, ad blocking is a serious problem - at the end of the day it hurts not only us, but our licensing partners and the very people out there creating content. Less revenue makes its way back to them, which in turn leads to less money being re-invested back into the industry. We need to do better and be smarter as advertisers to keep our users happy and provide advertising that really resonates with them.
What events do you attend?
I try to attend as much as my schedule allows: from conferences (Ad Week) to advertising networking events or just marketing and tech events in the city. Sometimes it's hard given how much I work, but I think it's important to get out there and socialize with fellow colleagues and keep up to date with on what's going on in the industry.
What goals and metrics do you use in your team? Which metrics are more important and how do you determine their importance?
Being that our team focuses on revenue, bottom line revenue is the biggest metric we monitor on literally an hourly basis. We track it in our system, across partners, across geographies...it's our biggest driver. We're also always looking very closely at CPM and fill. At the end of the day those two levers impact our bottom line the most so everything we do --- from tech initiatives to partnerships --- is with an eye for overall revenue.
What recommendation would you give to mobile ad operations managers who are just starting out in the industry? What mistakes can they avoid?
I think my biggest piece of advice is to be curious. Question everything and get meticulous with your data. Sometimes you will find something that looks off and can fall down a pretty deep rabbit hole trying to find the solution. Don't give up and keep looking for the answer because it's there. This drives my team nuts, but I'm always quoting Occam's Razor --- often the answer to something seemingly complex is a very simplistic error --- an incorrectly transcoded number, something targeted to the wrong place, etc.
What's the most significant lesson you've learned in your career? How did you come to realize it?
There are so many lessons; it's hard not to choose just one! I think a recent one I've really come to embrace is to stay calm. I think it's easy when you are in a revenue generating position to panic, but that sets everyone off around you and you all become much less capable of coming to a solution. Stay calm, think through the issue carefully and collect all the data available to you to come up with a hypothesis. Then, devise a plan to systematically disprove that hypothesis to get to a solution.
Where do you see mobile ad industry in the next 3-5 years? What shifts do you expect in the market place?
The mobile industry has already changed so much in the past 3-5 years, it's hard to predict where it's going to go next! I think the technology is going to continue to evolve .You really can't do anything on mobile anymore without an SDK integration. Data is increasingly becoming the currency of the industry and we're going to see more moves into capturing granular data very elegantly. I think we're going to start to see more innovation --- more interactivity with ads, more information being passed that will allow greater targeting --- I think it's going to continue to grow and evolve.
We're also seeing a bit move into connected devices in the living room. A year ago, no one was even talking about this and we were having a hard time finding buyers for our inventory. We've seen this really start to pick up as the general population continues to "cord cut"; traditional TV budgets are starting to shift as people shift their consumption patterns off of broadcast television.
It's a fascinating time to be in this space, and I'm excited to see what the next few years are going to bring!