Fueled By Ad Gains, TPM To Broaden Political Coverage

In a series of bids to expand its base of traffic and advertising, Talking Points Memo wants to be viewed as more than just a politics news site centered on the war between liberals and conservatives. So the site is planning to expand its coverage of foreign policy, technology and financial news over the next few months. Plus, after avoiding the mobile app rush last year, TPM currently has mobile and tablet applications in production.

Two years after abandoning third-party ad networks in favor of handling the site’s ad sales on its own, Marshall recently told Nieman Lab that January through June’s ad revenues were up 88 percent over the same period last year.

TPM doesn’t provided detailed figures of its ad sales, but Marshall did say that July’s revenues came in a bit below the June number. That said, TPM’s booked sales for August already exceed the numbers for June. “In other words August 2011 will again be our biggest ad sales month in the site’s history,” said TPM Media founder Josh Marshall. “So the trend is consistent with our growth rate for Q1 and Q2.”

It didn’t take a great deal of staffing up to do it. From one ad person in ’09, TPM has just two ad sales people, though Marshall is currently looking to hire a third in either New York or Washington DC. What has changed in the past two years is the widening of TPM’s focus to advertisers. Starting out, TPM centered its sales on two segments: the DC area and the geo-targeted ad market. Now, a lot of the money comes from brand campaigns that are nationally or regionally aimed.

In general, political sites tend not to be a big focus of political campaigns. The thinking about political media buyers is that people who favor ideologically-driven news don’t need to be convinced to vote for a particular candidate. By choosing a slanted political site, the user has already made their choice and any other ads would be preaching to the choir.

While TPM is generally identified as a left-leaning, progressive site, Marshall insisted that the demos it appeals to are more diverse than some observers might think. So when political campaigns So as local and national broadcasters await the expected wave upon wave of campaign ad cash, TPM is also looking for a boost related to last year’s national elections.

“Campaign ads are still mainly bound to TV,” Marshall acknowledges. “Most of those ads are aimed at people with a casual interest in politics. We definitely sell to campaigns. We were one of three or four sites chosen. But most of the big revenues from the election season comes from advocacy and corporate advertisers trying to access our audience during that period of intensified interest. Our audience is more ideologically diverse than you might think. That said, we still benefit from the political cycle and our ad sales people in the field are having conversations with sponsors. The primary season is a time of increased interest. There’s an eight- or nine week period between conventions and election and that’s different from any other time in the year.”

TPM isn’t just counting on political ads as Marshall works to keep its current users on the site more often and attract new ones. In addition to stepping up news coverage of things like tech (think “green jobs,” for instance) and financial news (e.g., the debt ceiling, regulation), and more foreign news. There was some thought of TPM setting up international bureaus, the need doesn’t match the resources at the moment.

So aside from hiring another ad sales person, TPM is finally going to be launching mobile apps. “We wanted to have a good sense of how the mobile audience would develop before we rushed to get an app out,” Marshall said. Roughly 11 percent of TPM’s total 3 million monthly visits — it claims to have doubled site traffic since ’09 — now come from the mobile wap site, which is Apple/iPhone-enabled. “Our big push in mobile is coming in the fall, when we release our iPad and iPhone apps,” Marshall said.

The apps and access to content will remain free, as will the site, Marshall said, emphasizing his lack of interest in a paywall. But the idea of selling additional content or long-form reports, is something Marshall and his company will be working out over the next few months.

“Our whole model is based on the big picture being free,”. We do have some ongoing talks with book publishers,” Marshall said. “But we’re never going to have a paywall. However, there are premium items we can sell, things that present different ways of packaging our content, such as research sections, like GigaOm has. So far, there’s nothing concrete planned in the area of premium offerings, but we’re constantly thinking about it.”