AOL Goes Vertical With New Devil Units

Two new formats aimed at entertainment, retail brands

AOL launched its oversized Project Devil ad unit in September 2010 as a way to attract brand dollars to the Web, in part by packing the premium placement with interactive apps. For example, a single ad could feature two or three apps, such as a video player or an ecommerce window.

Procter & Gamble and Verizon bought in early, but according to Sanjay Jain, CTO of AOL’s Pictela unit, over the last two years brands have been asking more options, such as vertical-specific capabilities. Now AOL is answering back with two new Devil units designed particularly for entertainment and retail brands, respectively. 

“People had been asking for industry-specific solutions,” Jain said.

The first unit carries the same 300 x 1050 pixel size as the original Devil format, but cuts the number of apps featured to two. Entertainment brands had been asking for more video opportunities within Devil, Jain explained, so the new format allows AOL to devote 66 percent of the real estate to HD video (the video space expands when users click on these ads).

The second unit is a bit shorter at 300 x 600 pixels and showcases just one app. Jain said the 600-pixel size is “more prevalent” in retail advertising because these companies often employ product images showcasing models standing while wearing a particular item. Rather than limiting the product space to a series of thumbnails, the new unit lets brands blow up one image at a time and flow real-time pricing and inventory data into the placement to drive sales.

This isn’t the first time AOL’s added retail-specific capabilities to Devil—last year AOL it rolled out the ability for users to shop within these ads. The newer Devil units should help brands wrap their heads around how to use the ad, but there’s still the question of where the campaigns will run.

Jain admitted that many people consider the unit to be AOL-specific, running mainly on the company's owned-and-operated sites. While Hearst said in May of last year that it would feature the format on its sites, few other publishers followed initially.

But Devil may be picking up momentum. The Interactive Advertising Bureau added Devil to its standard ad portfolio in February, and Jain said 100 publishers have signed on to serve the unit. In the first half of 2012, Devil ads averaged 5.18 percent interaction rate, with users usually spending 24 seconds doing things like checking out photo galleries, playing videos or reading social posts within the banners. Devil’s slow distribution provided AOL with the ability to incubate in-house, said Jain, so the new formats were informed by the original unit's live testing and feedback.

Also helping Devil’s expansion will be Pictela Enterprise, the self-serve ad creation and delivery platform that was announced in February. Pictela Enterprise has been in beta with a handful of agencies and should go live in the fourth quarter. “The product we showed you in February is a lot different than the product [AOL will unveil] in Q4," Jain said.