Media Daily News caught up with KC Estenson, SVP and general manager of CNN.com, to discuss the network’s recent sale of news aggregator app Zite to Flipboard this month, the audience shift to mobile devices, and the overhaul of CNN’s digital presence. Prior to joining CNN in 2008, Estenson oversaw the digital media businesses of The Walt Disney Company across online, on-demand and mobile platforms.
MP: CNN’s TV ratings have gotten a big boost from the news surrounding the missing Flight 370. Have you seen a similar spike on the digital side?
KE: We had one of our biggest weeks ever last week. Between that building imploding in Harlem and this Malaysian airliner, CNN digital had its biggest week of the year, and one of our biggest weeks in recent memory. We’re seeing that more and more, where we’re having these massive digital days, and it’s helping to reinforce television. For us, we’re really platform-agnostic. We want to reach people wherever they are, immediacy is important to us, and ubiquity is important to us.
MP: Following up on the Zite sale, beyond gaining a presence on Flipboard, and investing in the company, what does CNN expect to get out of the deal?
KE: They’re going to get a lot of learnings from us, having our content, and the speed with which we publish, and how often we update and drive breaking news. And I think we’re going to learn a ton from them about premium ad execution in the mobile space, about presentation of content and bringing a more premium layout in design in mobile than historically we’ve had before.
MP: In that vein, where does the redesign of CNN’s digital presence stand right now?
KE: We are testing that behind the scenes. The reality is that the news cycle the last six to eight months has been fierce, and the core site we have out there to the public -- which is not a responsive site, it’s a traditional site -- is growing crazily. And the mobile side is going really well. So what it’s done is, it has sort of relieved the pressure on us from having to roll out a new site.
We’ve seen NBC and others get out with their responsive sites, and honestly, they’ve had some trouble. So a combination of those things has put us in a spot where we said we’re going to take our time and do this right. So when we have our upfront presentations here at the beginning of April, you’ll see us at that time unveil a public launch date.
MP: How would you describe CNN’s approach to developing across platforms?
KE: It is a unified design system and to publish our content in a native way for the device you’re on seamlessly and easily. It’ll be holistic, across every device, it’ll be global, and as we’ve said publicly before, it will introduce a whole new look and feel for CNN that will be consistent with a whole lot of other things you see across our network.
MP: And that includes moving away from the familiar red color scheme?
KE: You’ve seen in our latest iOS release that [new] palette has started to come out into the apps -- we have an Android update coming out next week that will have that look and feel -- so what we’ve decided to is tease it out there and get a lot of feedback…and use it to make the whole system better.
MP: What’s the focus as far as mobile advertising in relation to the relaunch?
KE: The biggest thing we’re working to ensure doesn’t happen is that our pricing diminishes because the screen size is smaller. And that really was a key component behind Flipboard. They’ve created an ad unit -- that full-page slate ad they call a Flip Ad -- that s glossy, has super-high engagement compared to other types of ad unit, and has been warmly embraced by users. We found that very compelling, and the pricing model to be very compelling.
MP:. That’s CNN on Flipboard. What about on CNN’s own mobile properties?
KE: We’ll learn a lot from that. We’ve built a very strong digital sales team that specializes in large, Web-driven sponsorships, and large video executions -- we do 100 million video views a month. We have a big video business. Video is really our core competency. So mobile is kind of a new thing; it’s come at our sales team really fast. So their capabilities are good in that area, but a key part of the [Flipboard] partnership is, in some ways, to learn how to drive premium pricing and brand execution in the mobile space.
My goal would be to restrain ad inventory and serve fewer ads at a higher CPM -- better pricing, better execution, better brand messaging…and those ad units are a big part of that strategy for us.
MP: According to comScore, CNN now has almost as many monthly U.S. visitors via mobile as the desktop. And mobile has also increased the digital audience by about 50%. What does that mean for CNN?
KE: It’s given us incredible access to our consumers and users like we’ve never had before. I like to think it will be the primary access point for the CNN brand going forward. On top of that, when you think of CNN and breaking news, it’s such a powerful component of what we do to make people aware of issues as they arise. Whether it’s the Malaysian plane crash, or what’s the latest in Ukraine or Syria, your phone is the access point.
MP: At least in the U.S., people generally spend much more time with apps than the mobile Web. Are you seeing the same thing at CNN?
KE: It’s funny but Web usage still outstrips the app usage, though I think that gap is closing. But we have the benefit of having a very short URL. We have a ton of bookmarked usage in mobile. People have just set it up as a default on their browser. Our iPhone app is up about 140% year over year, but the mobile Web was so big to begin with.
MP: What about smartphone compared to tablet use?
KE: Smartphones definitely still outstrip tablet for us. Our video consumption on tablet is very high, proportionate to the number of users. But the bulk page views are still absolutely come more of the phone.
MP: Regardless of device, does ad development still lag the surge in usage?
KE: What’s happening now is a lot of the friction for mobile is coming out of it. Two years ago, we couldn’t get any creative for mobile…you just didn’t have enough to work with. So you’re just starting to see agencies line up mobile groups, starting to see right kind of creative come in, and the right kind of ad-serving capabilities, and targeting capabilities. As the big boys like Facebook and Google and Yahoo and AOL beef up their capabilities, the entire industry has more ability to serve into these areas.