NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Bloggers long ago perfected the art of marketing their content with headlines designed to be picked up by search engines, Twitter blasts, Facebook updates and Tumblr accounts. Traditional media is playing catch-up, but an array of premium publishers are now also experimenting with a new kind of paid syndication through a startup called Outbrain.
Outbrain's basic offering is a free widget that automatically provides links to posts, usually on related subjects, on that site. But if the publishers using the "You Might Be Interested In" widget approve, Outbrain will also let outside sites buy their way into the list of suggested related content. Those links are marked "paid distribution."
"That's where it gets really interesting," said Sandor Marik, executive director of business development at Conde Nast, one of the big publishers using Outbrain's widget and paying to appear in the widget on other sites. Conde's Hotel Chatter, for example, uses the Outbrain widget below most of its articles to offer related posts on the site as well as sponsored links from another publisher such as Slate or Elle. Conde also buys links on other sites within this network.
"It's very powerful," Mr. Marik said. "What makes it work so well is the advertisers are publishers."
Other publishers trying Outbrain to acquire traffic include USA Today, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Daily Beast, New York Observer, Slate, The Street, Elle and Hollywood Reporter.
The practice of buying traffic by paying for links is not new, although it's become a less common practice as social sites such as Twitter and Digg have increasingly provided significant referrals for free. But packaging contextually relevant paid links with other related content might be more compelling for web users than posting links more on their own. Slate buys traffic from MSN and Outbrain but has seen better results from Outbrain. "The average MSN reader might hit one or two pages on Slate," explained editor David Plotz. "With Outbrain, the reader was hitting three or four pages. The quality of audience they were sending us was pretty high."
Outbrain's model also makes buying traffic easier than it was with one-off deals. Buying links on specific sites isn't actually even possible with Outbrain; publishers buy into the network as a whole. But sites displaying the widget can specify outside publishers that they don't want to see listed in the related content unit. Buyers can also identify sites where they don't want their links to appear.
Not about making more money fast
Publishers displaying sponsored links in the Outbrain unit get a share of the revenue. And the traffic that sites get from buying links means more of the page views that their own advertisers want. But publishers don't seem to view the platform as a way to make significant money in the short term. "We're using this primarily to promote our content on other sites," said Conde Nast's Mr. Marik.
Slate closely monitors the results of its involvement with Outbrain. "The metrics are different on every link, on every section, so there's no single ROI on this technology," Mr. Plotz said. "We look at it all the time, but it's [just] as much about audience building. Can these new readers we're bringing in become an annuity for us? That's what we're constantly evaluating. These are questions every editor and publisher is grappling with."
The traffic can also, however, help sites meet commitments that they've made to their advertisers. "Sometimes we've already sold the traffic to advertisers in a particular area of the site, so we just have to drive traffic there," Mr. Plotz said.
Even advertisers have noticed the premium publishers hosting widgets from Outbrain, which allows advertisers to buy links just like publishers as long as the links point to content such as a marketer's blog post or an editorial item elsewhere -- not to regular ads. Publishers carrying the widget can also blacklist marketer links.
Ford and British Airways have already bought related content links. Ford, for example, recently bought a link in automotive-related content within Outbrain, one of which wound up appearing under a USA Today article. That "paid distribution" link pointed to a review of a Ford car in Car and Driver magazine; Car and Driver was not involved in the transaction.
Content links like this appeal partly because traditional ads aren't as effective as they used to be, said Leona Hobbs, VP at Social Media Group, a social media agency in Toronto. "Eye-tracking online shows that consumers just ignore the ad box," Ms. Hobbs said. "So there's a real need and a real opportunity for brands to stop interrupting the customer with their advertising and start a much more social kind of interaction with content that is useful to that individual, content that's more entertaining."
To keep readers clicking, Outbrain's algorithms are designed to avoid pulling up links that are closely related enough that they ape the post a web surfer's just read. "In content, you need to be a lot more serendipitous," said Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai. "What we found that in many content categories is that being too relevant actually damages the engagement." Some suggested links referred by Outbrain's algorithm may bring up an article that may not be related at all, such as an article about a Hollywood celebrity below an article on politics.
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