Time.com Ad, Traffic Strategy Focuses More Heavily On Verticals

The value of being a weekly print brand in the online era has been in doubt for years, but Time magazine believes that it can retain relevance by not just emphasizing the Time the brand online, but ramping up attention a lot more on news niches, creating blogs around key topics to maintain web traffic between the spikes related to its traditional coverage of big events. Gadget-and-gaming Techland, politically minded Swampland, military news Battleland and nine other blogs infuse this version of Time.com, with more to come.

Before the end of the year, Time.com plans to add an entertainment blog, an opinion site with guest bloggers and possibly ones about society and family, as well as criminal justice. The moves are part of the “vertical strategy,” which began about two years ago, said Jim Frederick, the site’s managing editor, in an interview with paidContent.

Time also says that digital revenue is up 12 percent so far, though it declined to provide dollar figures. The magazine’s executives point to sponsorships from Goldman Sachs and Ally Financial’s launch sponsorship of Time.com’s finance vertical Moneyland and Starbucks (NSDQ: SBUX) for the launch of the Lightbox photography blog on Word Press.

“In developing the vertical strategy, we decided to pinpoint areas of reader and advertiser interest, blow them out as mini-publications in their own right,” Frederick said. “The idea was to get writers who can speak to Tech enthusiasts for Techland or personal finance fans at Moneyland, and forge new readerships, while still embracing our core audience and feeling familiar to our Time loyalists, too.””

Time.com enters the fall coming off a pretty good summer and spring, though traffic appeared to slow down a bit during the summer months. Much of the credit for the traffic gains goes to coverage of major news events like the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Arab Spring and the battle over the U.S. debt ceiling — the kind of big stories that remain Time’s strong suit.

Internal numbers have placed Time.com’s July as one its biggest monthly gains, with traffic rising 16.7 percent over the year before; the site’s best month so far this year was in May, when it had 14.4 million uniques, according to comScore.

It’s hard to look independently at the value created by the verticals, as *comScore* doesn’t break out the traffic numbers for the individual channels. But according to Time.com’s internal *Omniture* numbers, verticals drove 40 percent of total site visits in 2011. Newsfeed, which is the primary daily news blog, for example, brings in roughly 5 million monthly visits on average, while wellness vertical Healthland brings in about 2.2 million monthly visits on average. Newer vertical Moneyland, which launched in June, is seeing upwards of 1.5 million monthly visits on average and has had double-digit percentage growth since launch, Time claims.

Beyond the site: In addition to the website verticals, Time is looking to other digital extensions. A month before the July rollout of Time magazine’s all-access iPad app subscription plan, it introduced a companion item on the device: The Page: Mark Halperin 2012 App for iPad, a free, separate app that offers political analysis from the veteran political reporter with ExxonMobil as the exclusive sponsor at its launch.

And from the PC and mobile screen, the magazine is hoping that connected TVs will provide another opportunity to plant the brand’s flag. Its first free widget on the Samsung TV platform has seen over 25,000 app downloads in the first two weeks. The Samsung TV app has video and photos in the full screen mode and it can also be used widget mode to read the Time content while watching live TV on connected Samsung sets. At the moment, people may not be clamoring to read the news on their TVs, but if the connected set is the intersection of traditional media and new, Time wants to be ready.

The challenge: Either way, the magazine has a lot of content to fill its various platforms. In all, Time.com has 200 original posts a day, some of which are full-blown articles, some brief blog items. The challenge now is balance the management of those individual brands and somehow have it track back to the main title. “While we want individual brands to succeed in their own right, the parts are very tightly integrated with the whole site,” Frederick said. “In 2005 and 2006, the web was viewed as a repository for what was in the magazine. We are trying to thread a very tight needle, doing what’s best for the online properties, exploit an integrated business model. The job is not just traffic, but drive subscriptions as well. To this day, the greatest benefit [is that] our brand name is connected to a weekly mag. It’s not the drawback people might think it is.”

To help build up the 90-year-old brand, the company has been using Tumblr as a marketing tool, as opposed to another avenue for content. “Initially, Tumblr was a conundrum for us,” Frederick said. “It’s a big social media presence, but we couldn’t figure out what we would use it for. There was no need to use it to republish stories. So we pretty much ignored it.”

That was until this month, when the site launched two separate Tumblr sites, including Lightbox. Time’s social media producer, Allie Townsend, had the idea of creating the main Time on Tumblr as a digitized archive of the magazine’s history. “We could drop the apprehension and talk about Time the brand and have a little fun with it,” Frederick said. “Time is a cultural touchstone and it figures prominently into the movie posters and scenes. It’s a good showcase to highlight those appearances and celebrate the brand, but in not in a heavy-handed way.”

In Q2, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, Time magazine’s ad pages were up a very healthy 12 percent, considering the total numbers for the period were slightly better than flat.

It’s worth noting that that rise occurred at a time when there was a lot more hope in the economic recovery. There is likely to be some ad pullback for magazines, and digital is not close to making up the losses.

In the meantime, as Time Inc. waits for a new CEO, the flagship news magazine’s improvements in traffic and ad pages could help cushion it against any big changes in its management structure or the plans the staff has spent months working on. In past years, the News Group, which includes Time, the Fortune|Money group, and the Sports Illustrated group, tended to be eclipsed in terms of revenue growth by the Style and Entertainment unit, which houses People, InStyle and Entertainment Weekly.

Even with all the various mini-sites and digital adjuncts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone expects the rise of print to occur on the backs of digital. But it does suggest that Time has its best chance yet to get digital growth to match up to the actual revenues and cachet still being largely derived by the print brand.