It's hard to think of a traditional media outlet more perfectly positioned to transition to the digital age than CNN.
When it launched in 1980 as the first ever television station dedicated entirely to news, the cable network single-handedly created the 24-hour news cycle and in many ways foreshadowed the "always on" nature of publishing on the web.
It's no surprise, then, that perhaps the defining feature of CNN's digital presence is its deep integration with the news brand's television properties from both an editorial and advertising perspective.
CNN is well-nested within a large media group that advertisers can purchase across. It's part of Turner Broadcasting Systems, a division of Time Warner Inc., the home to TNT, TBS, and Cartoon Network. In 2014, Time Warner Inc. split from Time Inc., who we recently profiled.
Breaking News Coverage
Regardless of whether you access CNN via its website, its mobile app, or even Snapchat, you can expect the same brand of splashy, up-to-the-minute coverage of the day's big stories that they have become accustomed to seeing on television.
For brands, the transition is similarly seamless. More than 80% of CNN's television sponsorships include a digital integration, and the publisher is hard at work increasing its output of online video to meet advertisers' increased demand for that category of inventory.
“When you look at doing anything on television, whether it's an original series we have, or a film, or a documentary, every one of those sponsorships has an integrated digital engagement," said Joseph Dugan, CNN’s SVP of digital ad sales.
“I've been at CNN for over 20 years, and right now I can tell you that more people are engaging with CNN across more devices than at any other time in our 35-year history."
The fusion of CNN's television and digital properties starts on the editorial side, where Dugan says the two departments share resources and work together to cover the same story across television, the website and social media.
CNN is careful to package each story in a way that feels natural for the medium people are consuming it on.
For instance, on a recent afternoon, CNN was devoting significant resources to covering ISIS’s growing power in the Middle East.
On the website, the lead story was an in-depth news piece on ISIS’s push into Afghanistan and its power struggle there with the Taliban. Embedded in the article were video clips that also aired on CNN television.
Meanwhile, On Snapchat
Meanwhile for Snapchat’s Discover platform, on which CNN is one of 12 entertainment and news entities creating content specifically for the social network, the story was covered in a way that made sense for an on-the-go audience of people who were perhaps not as familiar with ISIS as those reading on the website.
Rather than a news update that presumed a certain degree of knowledge about the terrorist organization, CNN’s lead story was a more general animated voiceover explaining how ISIS makes its money.
"We don’t repurpose content," Dugan explained.
“It might be the same kind of content, but it's told in a manner that is conducive to the Snapchat audience."
Snapchat has not yet released engagement numbers for its Discovery platform, which launched in late January, but Dugan says CNN has so far been pleased with how many people it has seen accessing its content there.
A Digital War Room
As you might expect from a publisher born in the ratings-obsessed world of television, CNN is keenly aware of how many people are visiting its digital properties at any given time, and works hard to optimize its website and its content based on what people are most likely to click.
The fusion of CNN's television and digital properties starts on the editorial side.
CNNMoney, the site’s finance vertical, recently created a digital war room to keep tabs on the news stories that are most popular on both its own properties and on social media at large. The data allows CNN's producers to create stories around the moment's hottest topics and helps them A/B test headlines.
Slightly more than half of CNN's 100 million uniques arrive via mobile devices.
Across all of its digital properties, which include the popular sports site Bleacher Report and CNN’s sister network HLNTV.com, CNN says it receives more than 100 million monthly unique visitors, slightly more than half of which arrive via mobile devices.
A CNN spokesperson declined to say what percentage of traffic comes via social media, but with more than 42 million Twitter followers for @cnn and a separate breaking news handle plus close to 17 million on Facebook, social clearly plays a signficant role.
The Importance Of Video
Where the digital team is most focused at the moment is improving CNN's lucrative online video offerings, which are more prominent after a January site redesign that showcases them at cnn.com/video.
Last year, CNN began creating original video series exclusively for online viewing with the launch of its CNN Digital Studios team. The team now has about 12 people on it and creates between a dozen and two dozen videos each month.
The news brand monetizes its digital video series by selling sponsorships against it on a CPM basis.
While the content itself is created by the Digital Studios team, CNN's integrated marketing team works with the client to find a topic that aligns with their marketing message.
These projects are a collaboration between the client, CNN’s integrated marketing team, and the editorial employees of the digital studio.
While the client and the integrated marketing team work together to come up with the topics the stories will cover, Dugan says the videos themselves are being created entirely by a team that works exclusively for CNN's content studio.
As an example, Skype sponsors an original series of web videos entitled "Far Corners," in which host Bill Weir uses the video chat service to interview people he met on his travels for the CNN television program "The Wonder List."
The original series is sold on a CPM basis with a minimum spend threshold, according to Dugan.
A CNN spokesperson said the videos are distributed the same way any original video series would roll out across CNN's platforms, with the specific strategy being determined on a case-by-case basis to align with the strengths of the content.
CNN is also developing a branded content studio.
In addition, CNN is in the process of developing a branded content studio, which would create content specifically for advertisers and give clients more control over the editorial process.
"We've been creating videos specifically for digital, and then from there, we’ll be moving it more into custom branded content," Dugan said. “That's the evolution of CNN video."
The display side
On the display side, CNN offers rich media ads, as well as traditional banners — the latter of which are sold both through direct buys and via real-time bidding.
Though programmatic display makes up only a small portion of the site's monetization mix, Dugan said they sell particularly well during breaking news stories that draw new users to the site.
A native zone
CNN's native product is what it calls a “zone” on its homepage.
The zone includes a handful of stories — some being CNN editorial content and some being content created by a sponsor — placed in a group on the homepage underneath a banner indicating that their promotion been paid for by an advertiser.
On some occasions, the native links will drive users to a custom-made multimedia hub created by the CNN integrated marketing team. These projects are sold via a flat rate with a traffic estimate included.
"CNN is absolutely big in native," Dugan said.
"A lot of people will come up with cool native placements, but not many of them will be as big and bold and creative at the scale that we do. CNN’s homepage can do 7 million uniques and 20 million pageviews on any given day."
When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of these ad products, CNN's marketing team sits down with clients beforehand to determine the goals they are trying to achieve, whether it's reach, social engagement, or pageviews.
Sometimes CNN will lean on fellow Time Warner Inc. asset Time Warner Media Lab for a custom research study to judge how successful a given campaign was.
CNN’s brand of reporting is big enough to encompass any group a major advertiser could ever want to reach.
Moving forward, Dugan is most excited about the upcoming 2016 presidential elections, which he says will bring CNN both a huge online and television audience for its news coverage and major sponsorship opportunities for its clients.
And with CNN's family of sites already bringing in more than 100 million monthly visitors, he feels that the audience for CNN’s brand of reporting is big enough to encompass any group of people a major advertiser could ever want to reach.
"There's a reason we're one of the 12 brands on Snapchat, there's a reason we were one of the three brands mentioned when Apple announced the Apple Watch — they all realize the value of CNN's credible journalism," Dugan said. "We have a lot of advertising to sell, and our audience is just taking us to these great, new places."