Outbrain: Turning Advertisers Into Aggregators

Are advertisers the new aggregators? A company called Outbrain thinks so and is seriously stretching the definition of contextual relevancy by letting advertisers actually become distributors of content.

As much online advertising is still annoying, disruptive and irrelevant, marketers are moving toward ad formats that are less intrusive and more personalized. Out of that have come keyword-driven sidebar ads and advertising that mimics editorial content.

Outbrain is going further. It’s straddling the worlds of advertising and content by placing advertiser links on its distribution network of sites like USA Today and The Washington Post.
One client, American Express, uses Outbrain to send traffic to its own content site. Another, Ford, might pay to distribute a car review on caranddriver.com.

New York-based Outbrain tries to ensure the ad-sponsored links look like edit, and that’s a big difference between this and other contextual ads. The advertisers are invisible to the reader. Their paid links sit next to or below the publishers’ own internal links and are usually (discreetly) labeled “sponsored” or “paid distribution,” with no mention of who is paying for their distribution—an ad/edit blurring that will likely rankle editorial purists.  

Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai said the company doesn’t hide the fact that the paid links are ad-supported and that the overarching goal is to publish links readers like. He said Outbrain would take down an advertiser-supplied link if readers don’t click on it. “We take the high ground,” he said.

Why does Outbrain not disclose the advertiser’s role? Marketers are all trying to get people to look at their ads by offering content, and the Outbrain strategy could work for an advertiser that wants to raise awareness of itself or a topic (assuming it has content worth sharing). As Dave Martin, svp of media at digital agency Ignited, put it, “It essentially lumps in advertiser links with content links. Savvy consumers don’t want any marketing or advertising in their lives. It’s always easier to get readers to click links to content than advertising and marketing.”

Also reaping the benefits of this are the publishers in Outbrain’s distribution network (USA Today, et al.), which get paid every time a visitor clicks on an Outbrain link. The hope is that this will help them wring more ad dollars out of content pages that are hard for Web sites to monetize beyond selling banner ads sold through ad exchanges, which isn’t especially lucrative.

Lisa DeSisto, GM of Boston.com, one of Outbrain’s distributors, said the site had to change how it presented the Outbrain-powered links to outside sites after visitors were confused about their commercial nature. (While they had stacked them under the sites, they now sit side by side.) Visitors also didn’t always realize that they would be leaving Boston.com when they clicked on the links. But now, visitors are twice as likely to click on
Outbrain-recommended articles than Boston.com’s own ones.

“It’s a new source of revenue for us,” DeSisto said. “We want the page working as hard as it can for us.”