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July 5, 2024
13 Min to read

What Can Local Publishers Learn from the New York Times Proprietary Digital Ad Suite?

While the vast majority of publishers worldwide continue to focus on standardization in their display advertising products to fit the needs of the big global ad networks and be as integrated in the programmatic ecosystem as possible, the New York Times (NYT) has opted for a novel approach.

Simon Kriener
Founder & MD
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Their advertising team has developed a proprietary suite of ad formats especially tailored for nytimes.com. The so-called “Flex Suite” may be a game-changer for the ad-supported online publishing sector and starkly contrasts the current approach most publishers sell and serve ads to their visitors.

So, let’s examine how the New York Times Flex Suite works and discuss several key takeaways for local publishers looking to improve their ad performance.

“The Flex Suite”: Premium, Native Digital Ad Experiences Designed to Reach The Times's Audience

The spark for developing this new method of delivering ads was a key question the team at the New York Times was grappling with: How can we offer our advertisers a more premium ad format while improving the site's overall user experience?

The answer came as “The Flex Suite,” a whole new system for creating and delivering digital display ads. Rather than the standard ad formats, this suite of 160 unique templates benefits from “Flex Frames,” allowing them to adapt seamlessly to screen sizes. Whether an ad is being shown on a desktop, tablet, or mobile, these ads maintain their visual appeal and functionality.

They’re also more native in style. Rather than simply filling the standard 300 x 250 and 300 x 600-pixel banner ads that appear on most publisher websites, the ads are designed to blend much more seamlessly into content. This not only delivers a much less obtrusive user experience for website visitors but also increased brand awareness and attention for advertisers.

But these are just the headlines. When scratching under the surface a little more, there’s even more to appreciate, such as the ability for a top-of-page banner ad to be seamlessly repurposed as an in-stream carousel without advertisers needing additional copy or content. It’s all done on the backend.

While it’s true that the New York Times boasts whole teams of experts in the field of ad tech and UX, there’s a lot local publishers can learn and adapt from their approach to online advertising.

By taking some of the core elements from the Flex Suite and combining them with the unique value proposition of being a trusted environment for regional advertisers, local publishers can enhance their digital ad products and build a unique offering that no one else in their region can offer.

Given that, below are some of the key takeaways local publishers can use to enhance their ad performance.

1. Simplify Your Product Through One Singular Premium Ad Format

One way to dramatically enhance your ad offerings to advertisers is to streamline the ad formats. In the case of The New York Times, there is a single, responsive format that works across all window sizes and devices. That’s just one set of copy, images, video, URL link, and call to action (CTA), which is automatically repurposed through its Flex Frame technology throughout the site.

New York Times Flex Suite: One responsive premium format for all advertisers Source: advertising.nytimes.com

This is in direct contrast to the vast majority of publishers, including local publishers, who tend to offer every IAB format available. Doing so is confusing to local advertisers and adds unnecessary friction to the process, often leaving them needing to choose between 26 different formats with names they have never heard of.

Ad Format Jungle: Which one should a local car dealer choose? Media Kit of a Local Publisher with plenty of different ad formats.

Therefore, the solution for local publishers should be to follow suit and offer a single format that works across all devices. Sales reps need not explain the pros and cons of wallpapers, sidebar ads, or super banners. It merely becomes a question of selling the ability to connect advertisers with their target audiences, avoiding the technicalities of digital advertising.

2. Offer High-Impact Ads That Readers Want to Engage With

Perhaps the most significant issue with standard online banner advertising is that it’s become commoditized in recent years. The same intrusive rectangular formats appear on millions of sites across the web, which has had the effect of users tuning them out entirely and focusing on the content instead. This phenomenon has even been nicknamed “Banner Blindness” due to its pervasiveness among web users.  

In response, the New York Times found the answer by taking cues from social media giants, who have made great efforts to make their ads look more native. Sites like Facebook and Instagram make ads blend seamlessly in with the platform, rather than make them look like a “foreign body” protruding into the content. Consequently, they boast higher engagement rates than traditional banner ads. Sebastian Tomich, Senior Vice President of advertising and innovation, noticed this in the development of their proprietary ad suite:

“The way advertisers are using Facebook isvery native, for example, but you haven’t really seen many publishers usingthat model.” - wsj.com

Meta’s primary ad format is the carousel ad. The carousel format allows every advertiser to display two or more images and/or videos in a single ad, each with its own headline, description, link, and call to action. Source: facebook.com/business/

Consequently, the New York Times team created more native ad formats that integrate seamlessly into the reading environment.They also added interactive features like sliders to capture attention without distracting or interrupting the user.

As a local publisher, the key takeaway here is to move away from the boring banner ads that users are accustomed to and instead work on more native and creative ad formats that genuinely engage the reader. The result will be improved user experiences and higher scores on crucial ad metrics for both publishers and advertisers.  

With higher-performing premium ads, local publishers can also charge premium rates well above programmatic counterparts.

3. Build Great Banners and Landing Pages for Your Advertisers with Scalable Templates

One clear advantage of the New York Times FlexFrame solution is that it offers high-impact banners to advertisers with a huge variety of designs implemented automatically. There’s no guesswork. Advertisers simply provide logos, images or videos, and copy, and the New York Times picks up the rest, making it all look native to their site, no matter where the ad is displayed. In short, advertisers send one ad that’s infinitely customizable in the publisher's backend.

NYTs Advertising Team offers 160 High-Impact-Templates for every advertising purpose - designed to be beautiful, engaging, and above all performative. Source: advertising.nytimes.com

Local publishers may think this technological capability is beyond them. But that’s simply not the case. You can collaborate with specialized local ad providers such as Smartico to deliver similar frictionless, high-impact ads.

For instance, our Smart Ads solution allows local publishers to create high-impact carousel ads with the power of AI. The technology scans the advertiser's website and other relevant entities, such as Google Places and social media profiles, to pull together content and information to create high impact digital ads.There’s little involvement from publishers and advertisers; it all just happens in the background and delivers a premium advertising experience.

4. Focus on Direct Sales, Not Programmatic

The New York Times’s strategy prioritizes direct sales, aiming to protect their premium environment by working directly with advertisers who value their top-tier audience. This doesn’t mean they’ve completely abandoned programmatic advertising, but they’ve adopted a very selective approach.

The Times does sell their ads programmatically, but this is mainly via direct deals and Private Marketplaces (PMPs), and only at a high floor price to trusted open exchanges. They’ve been careful not to expose all their inventories to the open market. For instance, the Times runs its Flex Frame primarily throughDoubleClick’s programmatic direct feature. This means only advertisers who create ads especially for NY Times flex frame design and have a direct deal with The Times Advertising Team can bid on this inventory in a closed auction. It’s a way of combining the best of both worlds: the precision and automation of programmatic advertising with the control and quality assurance of direct sales.

In essence, The New York Times’s strategy is about quality over quantity. They focus on attracting advertisers who are actively seeking to advertise on nytimes.com and are willing to pay a premium CPM to access their premium audience in a premium environment.

Local publishers can learn from this balanced approach. With a highly targeted audience with specific demographics and geographies, it’s not a good idea to sell your advertising inventory to third-party ad networks that place irrelevant ads for national or international companies using a lot of third-party cookies. This devalues the user experience and lowers ad revenue per placement.

Instead, the focus should be on building a sales team that develops direct relationships with leading SMBs in the region – those that could benefit the most from engaging your audience. With a highly focused audience, prominent local SMBs will happily pay a premium to get in front of them with high-quality ads.

5. Remove All Ad Clutter and Improve User Experience

The New York Times deliberately took a reader-first approach when redefining its ad strategy. They instantly removed all pop-up ads, pop under ads, and poor content recommendation boxes, such as Outbrain and Taboola, that damaged the brand. Despite cleansing the page of almost all ads, they only added back in a few premium in-article formats that seamlessly blended with the content.

While that may look counterintuitive on the surface (to remove and reduce the number of ads and, therefore, ad revenue),there was significant upside in doing so. Their user experience became far superior to similar news websites, leading to higher user retention, repeat visitors, and, ironically, higher ad earnings.


Endless Content Recommendation Feed on a typical news site: Not exactly the most high-quality ads.

In 2018 they launched their new Story page layout to provide an integrated reader and advertising experience, designed around flex frames. They moved away from the standard page format of most news sites having the article on the left and a rail on the right filled with related content and advertising. The new article page was presented in a single-column layout to allow users to focus on the main content—their journalism. This allowed for a premium advertising experience with the flex frame being full bleed, in-stream and responsive to the page’s width.

"As we work to extend advertising across our portfolio of offerings, we are laser focused on offering a premium and nondisruptive ad experience." - Joy Robins, Global Chief Advertising officer at The New York Times

While it’s clearly not solely down to their revamped advertising strategy, these changes as well as improvements to the site’s overall UX have delivered a significant jump in direct traffic (meaning visitors typed the address into the web browser address bar). Semrush, a tool that measures website traffic, shows that over 55% of all traffic to nytimes.com is classified as direct – demonstrating just how “sticky” and loyal its visitors have become.

New York Times new Story Page (Right): Single-column layout to allow users to focus on the main content — their journalism. This allows for a premium advertising experience with the flex frame being full bleed, in-stream and responsive to the page’s width. Source: christysabido.com

Local publishers should perform a similar approach to their ad strategy. Embedding more and more ad slots to wring every last cent out of CPMs and RPMs paid by big ad networks is not a viable long-term approach. It creates a horrible user experience and a race to the bottom regarding the quality of each ad impression delivered.

Instead, take a user-first approach, build trust, and earn loyalty from your readers. With a better native ad experience, as has been proven in the case of the New York Times, users won’t bounce in the same numbers, and they’ll stay longer and click on other articles, increasing impressions and earnings.  

Delivering such a premium user website experience has also been crucial in building the numbers of New York Times subscribers. As a local publisher, you could look at how, by differentiating yourself as a premium and trusted platform, you can build a subscription base to deliver another enhanced revenue stream.

6. Leverage First-Party Data for the Right Targeting

Something not yet mentioned regarding the New York Times’ advertising suite is the audience targeting. The company has developed a world-class audience-targeting solution based solely on article content and topics.

This solution, called Perspective Targeting, includes 42 emotions and 10 motivations. It’s also based primarily on first-party data, with readers manually opting in to be shown more personalized ads. This unique approach combined with the move away from third-party cookies, allows advertisers to use this solution to reach their audiences on a deeper emotional or motivational level, improving outcomes.

"We have built a portfolio of over 160 audience segments, including demographic and interest cohorts, which perform well for our advertisers — letting us know that our subscribers engage with the ads we deliver to them. Interest targeting is rooted in readership behavior and allows advertisers to reach readers passionate about topics such as comedy, entertainment, books, software and connectivity products, luxury watches, and more." - Joy Robins, Global Chief Advertising Officer at The New York Times

As a local publisher, it’s not as crucial to have complex targeting as your goldmine comes in the form of one really valuable dataset. You have hyper-local audiences that are already interested in the products and services offered in their region. For instance, only people living in the local area will read an article on the local football club or the renovation of the local church. So, it makes sense to show them an advert for a local gardening company that only serves that area.

Not only are users receiving ads that are more relevant and personalized to them, but advertisers also get higher-value impressions and other crucial metrics that no one else can offer, including IP-tracking in rural regions.None of this requires any kind of tracking data, such as first-party or third-party cookies. In fact, no user data needs to be collected and stored at all. It’s a win-win situation all round. You respect the privacy of your readers while delivering them a more personalized and premium site experience.  

Even if you do wish to improve performance through data collection, it doesn’t take much to do so. Simply asking your logged in readers for their exact location helps show them highly-relevant and targeted ads even when they may be reading articles on non-regional topics such as national sports or politics. Just a simple click on a pop-up checkbox can simultaneously increase the relevance of your ads to users and local reach for advertisers.

7. Stop Selling Clicks and Sell Attention Instead

Another way the New York Times redefined advertising for publishers was through new ways of measuring its impact. The challenge was to look at traditional metrics like impressions and click-through rates and try to improve them to give advertisers more insight into how their ads performed and the value gained.  

Their focus was to hone in on what really matters: attention. How much attention did each ad secure from their readers? So, they developed more nuance to ad reporting. Rather than reporting impressions, what about how long each impression lasted? To that end, the company invented its own metric called Active Average Viewable Time to give brands a much better idea of how their ads were doing.

Local publishers should take a leaf from the same book and report the numbers that matter. Not clicks or impressions but the level of attention gained in a trustworthy premium environment like a local news source.

By reporting attention, you can deliver more meaningful ad performance data to your clients. Comparing data such as how many minutes an ad spent in view of visitors and how long visitors spent on a landing page is far more valuable to advertisers than the number of “likes” received on a social media ad.

Platforms like Facebook offer poorer brand environments, small social bubbles that are difficult to break due to the algorithm, and increasingly short attention spans. By contrast, native banner ads average a five-second dwell time, and high-impact carousel ads from Smartico provide engagement for up to eight seconds!  

Smartico Dashboard shows how a publisher reports what really matters to a local advertiser: quality attention in the right region.

With a dashboard such as those provided by Smartico, advertisers can get the real value they’re looking for. Instead of just showing clients how many times their ad was shown, you can show where it was, how long it spent in the field of view, and how long a reader paid attention to it. These granular numbers aren’t available in other online advertising solutions.

Elevating Local Ad Strategies: Lessons from the New York Times’ Flex Suite

The New York Times' Flex Suite represents a paradigm shift in digital advertising, offering a blueprint for local publishers to enhance their own ad offerings. By focusing on native, high-impact ad formats and leveraging technology for seamless user experiences, they have demonstrated that premium ad experiences elevate user engagement and drive advertising revenues.

Local publishers can take cues from this approach by simplifying ad formats, integrating more native designs, and focusing on direct sales to boost ad performance and revenues.

At Smartico, we offer powerful solutions with our Smart Ads platform for local publishers looking to replicate this success. By automating the creation of engaging digital ads with AI, Smartico helps publishers deliver content that captures attention and engagement, similar to the New York Times’ strategy but tailored for local markets and SMBs.

If you would like to learn more about how we do this, then make sure to join our newsletter. In it we review and comment on industry trends, share secret sales hacks and best practices, and uncover sales performance from other local publishers to give you unrivaled insights into how you can leverage premium ads to transform your local publisher business model.

If you’re a local newspaper or publishing executive keen to receive new sales tactics and revenue stream ideas direct to your inbox, this is the newsletter for you.

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