Paid Distribution Part 3: Savvy Publishers No Longer Buy Random Audiences

June 20, 2017

A couple weeks ago I outlined several reasons why many publishers are bolstering their brand content distribution efforts with paid distribution. As we know, the branded content market is growing quickly and publisher revenue from digital premium branded content is $6 billion – with $3 billion going to the top 100 publishers alone.

While this rapid growth is positive, owned audiences are not growing at the same clip and publishers are seeking out alternative ways to get more eyeballs to their digital branded content. In the previous two posts, I highlighted how savvy publishers have adopted “intelligent paid distribution” strategies, as well as the dangers of overreliance on Facebook.

I’m now going to broach the most controversial means of paid distribution – content recommendation networks. The collections of tangentially “related” stories litter the web today and often direct readers to unknown sites. This post is not dedicated to accessing to the business model behind content networks or the ethical implications; but rather, will focus on their utility as a distribution channel for branded content.

RELATED: Paid Distribution Part 1: The Value Is In The Audience

Who are the main content recommendation players? Outbrain, Taboola, and RevContent are “the big three” vendors today in the US market. Together, they provide marketers with massive scale for promoting their content assets on publishers sites via recommendation widgets (often found at the bottom of article pages).

Example: Outbrain Content Recommendation on CNN

An example of a recommendation widget on as of June 2017. I do not recognize a single one of the sites.

Publishers can pay some of the cheapest rates to have their digital content, sponsored or otherwise, show up among these links on other digital publications. This is the usually the fastest and cheapest way to achieve scale. However, it often costs the publisher a great deal in the long run. While the above example looks benign, there are risks and questions involved in this approach. Namely around audience quality, transparency, and consumer perception. At the end of the day, we all know these widgets look like “clickbait” and “spammy”.

What (Who) Are You Buying?

There is a wide gap between the audiences publishers think they are purchasing, and the ones they are actually delivering. is wide, and so too the environments in which their promotional units appear. The truth is publishers are buying random audiences, random environments,  and quite frankly random content experiences. Thus contravenes the message they are sending to the brands and marketers who are investing in their premium branded content offerings and expertise.

When a client commits to a publisher based on the quality of their branded content and the environment in which it appears, does it make sense to deliver audiences using a proverbial digital slot machine? Of course not, and engagement metrics will eventually catch up when these random audiences don’t connect with the content.

RELATED: Paid Distribution Part 2: Facebook’s Not-So-Friendly Handshake

The other side of the coin is that the business model is funding those institutions which erode consumer trust in the first place. Premium publishers don’t have a ,monopoly on content recommendation; clickbait, click farms, fake news, extremist organizations and a plethora of networks with standards much lower than publishers are signing up and using this tool to fill their coffers at the same rate despite a much lower obligation to create quality content.

Transparency – or lack thereof

So, you made the decision to hit maximum reach on a campaign through content recommendation, and it’s come time to provide some metrics to the advertising client or brand around performance in their target demographic. I’m getting nervous just thinking about publishers tiptoeing around the black hole of audience data that accompanies the usage of content recommendation widgets – there is absolutely no transparency around audience data.

And that’s not where the transparency issues stop – you have little to no idea or control over where your promotional units end up. Will they rest next to like-minded and appropriate articles of similar subject matter? Will they be formatted correctly? These are all legitimate questions a publisher should be able to ask and answer.

Example: Taboola Recommendation Widget on A.V. Club

The last issue is perception. Publishers are boosting digital content marketing revenue by courting well-known and respected brands that are looking to connect with their audiences. With branding, context and perception are everything – can you picture one of your most valued clients placing an ad among the recommendations in the widget above? I can’t. I doubt these brands want to be associated with salacious headlines and dubious quality of journalism on display in these links.

RELATED: Is Branded Content Working? Yes, Says Joint Research from Ipsos Connect and Polar

Luckily, publishers are catching on that reliance on these networks can affect perception and erode trust. A former Slate executive recently told the New York Times they stopped using content recommendation widgets, entirely because of the perception they breed:

“It is not the right look if you’re trying to say you’re a high-quality, upper-tier website. When you’re looking at things from that prism and you’re not maniacally obsessed with monetizing every single pixel, Outbrain is very obviously not fitting into your equation anymore.”

So what’s my recommendation? Should you use content networks for digital branded content distribution? If you are a premium publisher – just don’t do it. Quality and content recommendation networks should not be in the same sentence.

I’ve been recommending that our premium publisher partners stop using low quality networks and I have been pleased to see them following my advice. Instead, leverage new tools like “Lookalike Audiences” from Outbrain (though they will cost much more, the more you target) or create your own solution based on your audience data and expertise, like Outside Magazine accomplished, to create a content recommendation widget you can trust.

At the end of the day, your audience and your perception of quality is what separates publishers from the rest of the digital pack. Avoid degrading your value, and instead present them for what they are – it’s what brands and marketers are seeking in the first place when they choose you as partner in their branded content strategy.


JULY 2017

Polar’s Snapshot of Global Branded Content Performance presents the complete picture for major markets and publishers this past quarter.