Why Some Pretty Smart Sponsored-Content Solutions Aren't Attracting Buyers Yet

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An intense competition is heating up to transform the world of sponsored content into a more programmatic buying experience. But in the race to win, the timing between the sellers and the buyers may be off, as publishers and tech companies are offering solutions -- some of them very smart -- that marketers might not be able to take full advantage of.

Time Inc. is the latest to enter the fray. It does so as it prepares to spin off from its parent later this year.

The company just launched a product called Watercooler Live. The platform turns real-time content from its own portfolio and from advertisers into dynamic microsites and ads for desktop, mobile and social channels.

The vertical microsites are not the main draw here. They're more to assist in the curation, ad optimization and targeting process than to make a direct play for eyeballs.

Desktop ads will feature a mix of advertiser content, magazine editorial and brand creative in two standard expandable IAB units. These are dynamically optimized based on what's trending in news and social channels. It extends the Amplify product Time Inc. launched last year.

The mobile and social ads, however, will position Time Inc. publishers like Southern Living and brand advertisers as equal partners in content. Such a juxtaposition, the company believes, will spur more people to interact with the sponsored content units. This will take the form of expanded Twitter "cards" and/or Apple iAds.

According to Adam Solomon, VP-digital ad products, what Time Inc. brings to the party here is data. "We know how to find people who would be attracted to that kind of [sponsored] content."

Time Inc. is wisely attacking two problems that have dogged sponsored content and so-called native ads.

First, it's aiming to automate some, but Solomon admits, not all of the process. This will aid targeting and also metrics.

Second, it is walling off the sponsored content into ad units rather than running them in stream. This keeps the church-state wall between advertising and editorial intact.

However, and this is key, Time Inc. has no advertisers on board at press time.

And there may be good reasons why.

It faces competition from a host of well-capitalized startups. All of which smell inefficiencies and an opportunity to make native ads scale.

Sharethrough, for example, is launching a self-serve product that lets marketers publish their own content directly into several major publishers' mobile editorial streams -- all at once. Its partners include Forbes.com and, oddly, Time Inc.'s own People.com.

OneSpot, another ad-tech startup run by former Time Inc. exec Steve Sachs, has technology in the field that turns a brand's own content into standard display units that can be funneled into the large ad exchanges.

All of these players are assuming that marketers have already made the shift from a message mind-set to a content-centric one.

There is no doubt an insatiable appetite by brand marketers to go direct. And now, with the help of Time Inc. and others, there are new ways to do so.

"Watercooler Live will be the bookend to the brand newsroom concept," said Solomon. "We can stand in the shoes of a People or Southern Living reader."

But the reality behind the real-time-marketing hype is that very few brands have truly operational "newsrooms" that are producing content with enough scale and -- this is key -- quality to match what the press does daily. For example, with its product pegged to news cycles and created by various titles, Time Inc. can churn out content all day long, meaning its half of those dynamic ads may always seem a little more current or fresh than the half bought by marketers.

Time Inc., ad-tech companies and others are right to think that marketers want to get in the content-creation game, but it could take years for them to do so competently. But time is something these firms may not have, as CPMs race to the bottom and costs escalate to keep up with new platforms and audience demands.

Steve Rubel is exec VP-global strategy and insights, Edelman. steverubel@gmail.com.
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