Surprise: Chrome’s mobile article recommendations are driving almost as much referral traffic as Twitter — it's now the fourth biggest source of referral traffic on the internet. Called “Google Chrome’s Articles for You,” these suggestions appear when Chrome users open a new browser tab on phone or tablet devices. The look and feel is similar to the way Taboola and Outbrain’s recommended article ads look on mobile, if a bit smaller.
While people hated the Chrome articles design at first, research shows that "Articles for You" traffic grew 2,100% in 2017 and is now one of the fastest growing sources of publisher traffic on the web. Articles are currently chosen algorithmically, but it’s only matter of time before Google invites advertisers to pay for a spot among these article suggestions — and creates a completely new source of native content distribution.
This isn’t the only recent change in paid content distribution. Following Facebook’s algorithm changes, publishers and brands are on the lookout for new traffic sources and distribution platforms are meeting them with new programs and opportunities.
Taboola is releasing a full-blown newsfeed for publishers on desktop and mobile called Taboola Feed. It mirrors the look of Facebook’s News Feed with an infinite scroll and when placed on a publisher’s site, it will contain content from that publisher as well as recommended content from other sources. This will expand the quantity of ads Taboola can theoretically serve per page, which will introduce greater distribution supply for advertisers, as well as create additional opportunities for publishers to drive more traffic to their owned content.
Meanwhile, Outbrain just signed a deal with video inventory platform Telaria to bring video ads to its network, which will appear above or below Outbrain’s recommended articles widget. This comes after Outbrain announced Sphere, a network of premium publishers who distribute high-quality content on the platform, in an effort to assuage publishers’ concerns about brand safety. Offering video and article ads in one platform brings Outbrain closer to platforms like Facebook in terms of creative capabilities, potentially making their offering more appealing to advertisers. In other good news specifically for B2B brands, LinkedIn will also be making in-feed video ads available to all companies.
Despite these new distribution options for brands and publishers, spending on Facebook hasn’t slowed down. Of the top 1,000 ad spenders on Facebook, only seven stopped buying ads after the Cambridge Analytica scandal surfaced, and two of them said their decision was unrelated.
After all, distribution is just as important as content creation, and brands may still be wary of leaving a major distribution platform with over 2 billion users and robust first and second-party targeting data. But in the meantime, other platforms like Taboola, Outbrain, and LinkedIn are trying to hook advertisers in with expanded options for written content and video, programs that better ensure brand safety, and even Facebook News Feed-type clone offerings.
At SimpleReach, our product runs off the world’s largest content data network of branded content publishers and brands. After doing a deep dive analysis of our entire content benchmark dataset for 2017, we discovered three major trends that are worth considering as you plan your future branded content strategies.
Refinery29 is now selling influencer campaigns that include sponsored posts created by its own in-house editorial staff, many of whom have large social followings. This allows Refinery29 to differentiate its branded content offering in a unique and tough-to-replicate way. They’re essentially offering advertisers more potential reach that is costless to the publisher — and in a world where CPMs have been rising substantially for paid content distribution, this means spending less on paid to deliver campaigns and a lower cost structure. And advertisers are biting; the publication launched this strategy last July and saw a 76% increase in advertisers buying ads in 2017.
Refinery29 has already given brands like Walgreens and Google access to its editorial staffers to create sponsored social posts for their campaigns, with staffers receiving quarterly bonuses for this work. The publication even hosts events called Refinery Pop-Ins, wherein advertisers can market their products — from cocktails to makeup — directly to editorial staffers, hoping to generate additional social content about the products.
Similarly, Barstool Sports, the sports and men’s lifestyle publisher, has an editorial staff of bloggers who have huge social followings that create sponsored content for platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. The Barstool brand is known for its irreverence and anti-PC attitude (which cost them a major partnership opportunity with ESPN), creating comedic and satirical content around pop culture, politics, and sports news. And advertisers that partner with the publication know that they’re also buying into the voice and humor of its editorial staffers. It’s not necessarily a guaranteed brand-safe experience, but it is an authentic one, allowing brands to reach readers who are wholly invested in what these bloggers have to say.
These strategies presents major advantages — beyond the hard-to-replicate reach, a publisher can clearly make the argument to brands of “hey, we already have a entire group of influencers in-house who are trained to create great content for our audience and live and breathe this space.”
Interestingly, those editorial staffers may be better positioned than celebrities to engage readers. According to new research by Fullscreen and Shareablee, influencers with 250,000 to 1 million followers (the range of most of the well-followed staffers) and 1 million to 20 million followers tend to drive the most engagement.
We’ve talked about the convergence of branded content and influencer marketing before around Viacom’s acquisition of Whosay, but this is an entirely new angle — one that’s difficult to replicate and provides publishers like Refinery29 with a unique advantage.
As ad costs rise and branded content publishers find themselves under pressure to attract advertisers, those with built-in influencer and social distribution networks may emerge with an advantage. They’re able to offer advertisers content creation and distribution in one shot, allowing those advertisers to reach built-in audiences of readers and viewers. Also, with their built-in floor of organic distribution, they’re better able to reach campaign goals, and will require less paid support and give additional margin protection.
Mercedes-Benz partnered with punk rock icon Henry Rollins for a new branded content series called “Tough Conversations,” which shows the vulnerable side of toughness in a podcast interview series and and TV documentary. The campaign was created to introduce the new X-Class trucks to the Australian market and appeal to an audience of customers who might not see themselves as the target market for trucks. What’s most interesting is that it wasn’t created with a single distribution source in mind. Instead, distribution is being handled through multiple owned platforms with paid support and media partnerships (Australia’s TV Channel One will air the documentary.)
This is a great example of content distribution and reuse. This type of approach is becoming the benchmark standard for branded content. Advertisers are understanding that content can’t be thought of in isolation as a separate channel. Rather it’s the atomic unit that feeds a wide variety of digital channels (and traditional, as with Mercedes-Benz) and campaigns.
Compare this campaign to Lincoln’s Matthew McConaughey ads we wrote about previously and you can see that there is much more room for Mercedes-Benz to create content and distribute it across digital platforms in longer-form storytelling. This is similar to a recent McDonald’s campaign we also covered: a three-part, investigative podcast series digging into its own Szechuan Sauce debacle of last October, and modeled after true-crime podcasts like “Serial” and “S-Town.”
Similarly, retail brand Tumi created a five-minute YouTube video with Emmy-winning actor Alexander Skarsgard, accompanied by created shorter versions for social channels as well as out-of-home and digital ads. AT&T partnered with Vice a few years ago for a branded content campaign that included a documentary, scripted series, and Tumblr content. And last year The Wall Street Journal teamed with MINI for its #DefyHunger campaign of written stories, social content, videos, and a full report about food insecurity in America.
Brands are starting to really understand the power of content reuse. The recent Mercedes-Benz campaign, in particular, shows how content can be created in a way that is adapted for multiple channels and publishers, opening up more opportunities to engage broader audiences on an ongoing basis.
Curated and published by Adam Orshan, Amanda Walgrove, and Matt Levin in New York City.