Outbrain and Slate send readers not only to publishers like the BBC and Time, but also to lesser-known sites that turn out to be pure ads: like The Financialist, Metro Chatter, and Downshift Cycling. Click on The Financialist’s #slatepitch-y “How to Fix Classroom Education: Get Rid of It,” and you’re taken to a branded content site (aka an ad) run by the big investment bank Credit Suisse. Click on the Metro Chatter and Downshift Cycling links and you find blog posts extolling SaneBox, an email-management startup, on something called the Rational Idealist. And even that’s not what it seems. In fact, it is Sanebox that is buying clicks for Rational Idealist, which has a glowing review of its product.
What’s happening here is that Slate is linking to an ostensibly legit “blog” that is ostensibly posting a legit product review. But the reviewers, in fact, are paid, which is why much of the copy is the exact same or very similar. It’s all marketing.
Dmitri Leonov, Sanebox’s vice president of growth, writes this in an email, “Lots of our users are bloggers, and our affiliate program offers them a payment for each new customer that comes from their blog. We do offer them the content to use as a baseline, but it’s certainly concerning that they are not varying it - at all.”
The biggest deal in the world? No. But, as Dean Starkman wrote, this is the existential problem with native ads: The blurrier the line between them and editorial content, the better they work—but the more damage they do to the editorial brand and the more of a slog the internet is for readers.
Lisa Lacour, Outbrain’s vice president of marketing, tells me the content recommending business represents a great opportunity for publishers—real money as well as extra, interesting content, as along as the proper balance is struck. Actually, Outbrain has tried to go upmarket from competitors, purging scammy content marketers from its system, a move that Outbrain said cost about a quarter of its revenue.
“We said look, we can take what you’ve historically thought of as internet wasteland, below the fold, and monetize it—not just with teeth whitening ads, but with good content,” Lacour says. “The intention of Outbrain, and I would hope all of our publishing partners, is to not try to trick anyone,” Lacour says. “We’re all about transparency and authenticity. Are we all fantastic and great at it at this point? No. And we’re trying to figure out the best way.”
And that’s why Slate’s decision to mix paid links with its editorial offerings is problematic. Any paid link Outbrain posts is advertising, even if it’s purchased by a legitimate publisher trying to hawk its own legitimate content. The news becomes the advertisement on Outbrain and Taboola.
(headline updated to remove quotes from around BBC)
More in The AuditRead More »