Industry Insights
Meeting Expectations: Thought Catalog on Monetizing Millennials


Cristina Calderin
Director of Accounts & Ad Operations
Thought Catalog



For those of us that aren’t familiar with Thought Catalog, please tell us a little more about your website and core audience.

Thought Catalog is a platform that allows young people to openly express their thoughts and opinions. Our mission is to provide Millennials with a means to publish their own work, and to give their pieces a chance become part of larger conversations. As one of the top-100 websites in the country, we are one of the primary platforms Millennials engage with today.


Programmatic has been a huge topic over the last few years, with most of the major industry publications espousing that it would be the main way in which most media buying is done in the future. However, it was stated just the other week that AppNexus impression transaction volume fell by over 90% after fraud cleanup on their exchange. What are your thoughts on programmatic as it relates to both the buy, and sell-side?

Though there is plenty of evidence that shows there is no stopping programmatic sales, we do see a lot of non-programmatic direct campaigns. Many of our direct sales transactions are actually not programmatic because some of our products require a very hands-on ad ops approach. There are definitely benefits to this – complete control over trafficking, optimizing, pacing, etc. But there are also, as you can imagine, the regular annoyances that come with trafficking entire campaigns (human error, extra time spent, etc). I image it’s similar for the buy-side: a direct agency-to-publisher method on larger budget campaigns provides for greater control over what gets sold and how it is distributed.

That’s not to say we don’t sell programmatically. A meaningful percentage of our inventory gets sold through our programmatic channels, which are extremely valuable to us. We work with a number of partners who monetize our unsold inventory, as well as transact regularly on direct programmatic sales and PMP deals.

To sum up my answer, I think it really depends on the type of campaign. As mentioned above, our native packages require a more manual approach, but for the more data-driven campaigns – the ones where buyers need to target very specific audiences – programmatic is the way to go.


Many publishers, including AdAge, Digiday, Foodbeast, The Next Web, and BuzzFeed, have moved towards a Branded Content / Sponsored Post model to monetize their audiences. What is Thought Catalog’s take on this, in melding media and editorial teams to partner more closely with a brand (and to preserve premium CPMs)?

This is actually one of the most popular products we sell – packaging native editorial content with banner display to deliver brand awareness for our clients. We work closely with each brand, making sure our writers are capturing what they want to communicate to their consumers, while at the same time not losing sight of what’s relevant to our core audience. We find it’s one of the most effective ways for our readers to engage with a brand, and we typically see great results in terms of pageviews and social interactions around each post.


What do you think are some misconceptions of Millennials by brands, or the digital advertising industry as a whole? 

I think a common one is that we have tiny attention spans. I can definitely see how that opinion is formed: we consume content from multiple devices, often at the same time. How will we watch a 2 minute video when there’s so much other stuff going on?

We were brought up in an age where large quantities of data and content are readily available to us on demand. And while we may consume media differently, it doesn’t necessarily mean content cannot grab lengthy periods of our attention. In my opinion, Millennials are willing to engage with content that’s not only meaningful to us, but also outlined and organized properly, easily consumed in various settings.

On Thought Catalog, for instance, we’ve devised strategies to serve Millennials for both quick reads and long-term engagement. At least 20% of our top articles in 2015 were over 2,000 words with a 4+ minute average engagement time. In fact, one of our articles was featured on Chartbeat’s list of the 20 most engaging stories of 2015. We also have a book vertical, where we publish books digitally and in print for those users who want a lengthy read.


Millennials have been know to be cord cutters, growing up in a digital & mobile-first environment and having all their content readily available through any platform, on-demand. How does this affect the way you think about content distribution, and monetization across platforms?

That mobile-first attitude has prompted us to make changes at Thought Catalog in terms of content-distribution and monetization. Last year alone we saw a major shift towards mobile, with over 60% of our traffic coming in from smartphones. It’s definitely been an adjustment over the past few years. Probably the most basic (and obvious) example is we redesigned the site in 2014 for mobile responsiveness.

In terms of monetization, it’s come with challenges. Mobile inventory doesn’t fare as well as desktop in terms of CPMs, and we’ve had to readjust our demand stack accordingly. At first, we were using the same strategy we used with desktop, but we soon realized mobile is a whole new monster. It took a lot of testing new partners (particularly those that specialize in mobile demand), as well as testing new ad formats that are more engaging for our users.


Does having a 3rd party audience measurement company like Quantcast to validate the traffic, demographics, and audience characteristics of Thought Catalog help with the media sales process? 

Absolutely. This is especially helpful attracting new programmatic ad partners, since these types of transactions happen on the web, and not in face-to-face meetings the way our sales team does when they meet with brands and agencies. Our Quantcast page gives them the trust they need to test on Thought Catalog – they know we’re a legitimate website, how many people we reach, and the type of audience they can expect to target. And they don’t have to take my word for it.


To the extent that you can reveal, what is the breakout of % of revenue from direct ad sales, as compared to that from 3rd parties like ad networks, exchanges, and data partners? What do you think the breakout is for other publishers in the same category? 

For Thought Catalog it varies on a monthly basis. We have a strong sales team that covers all US-territories, and some overseas, so we are always working directly with clients on campaigns. Seasonality also affects that percentage (for example, Summer/Back to School months tend to sell out, as do the holiday months).

As for other publishers similar to Thought Catalog, I honestly think it depends on size of the sales team and the publication’s goals. It may be a prerogative to directly sell as much inventory as possible, in which case a publisher would probably beef up their sales team. But they may have other goals that require funds elsewhere (engineering, content creation, etc), in which case, non-guaranteed sales would probably take up a larger chunk.


How does Thought Catalog approach mobile – do you plan to launch a mobile app soon? What do you think are the benefits / downsides to having a mobile app as a publisher?

This was mentioned a bit in the previous question, but we definitely approach mobile as it’s own entity. We have a separate demand stack and separate ways of optimizing for higher yield. We’ve also found that international mobile demand performs very differently – and for that reason, we treat international mobile demand as it’s own separate entity as well.

As far as mobile app goes, we do have an app, but it’s fairly new. Though it shows great stickiness so far, we are still navigating the pros and cons. From a monetization standpoint, I do believe overall RPM for mobile apps are better than mobile web – only because the data collected from app users is much more robust than mobile web.


The holy grail of premium inventory (outside of custom executions like Site Skins and Takeovers) is pre-roll video. Does Thought Catalog have any pre-roll video inventory, and how do you balance this with the use of in-banner video?

We treat pre-roll and video demand a bit differently at Thought Catalog, since we only publish written content. We don’t have any proprietary video content, so we don’t offer true pre-roll. Instead, we work with several third party vendors to sell out-stream video products to our clients. The videos typically appear mid-read in an article, expanding as the user scrolls down. The key to working with these types of formats is delivering good completion rates.

Other than that, we work with a very limited amount of in-banner video partners which are sold on a non-guaranteed, programmatic basis to help us take advantage of some of the more premium CPMs you see with video.


Lastly, what do you see as the future digital advertising, within the context of being a premium publisher?

Definitely a larger shift towards native advertising. If ad blocking has taught us anything, it’s that users are becoming jaded to conventional digital advertising. The industry will have to continue its search for innovative ways to monetize the user – ways that are more engaging and more in line with each individual publication.



Thought Catalog is a digital culture magazine dedicated to fun, smart and creative writing. Editorial intrest runs the gamut from personal essays to academic exposés, experimental literature to celebrity gossip. Founded in 2010, Thought Catalog is owned and operated by The Thought & Expression LLC, an experimental media group based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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