Is It Good for Publishers When Advertisers Are Distributors?

Someone else controls the environment

Advertisers want their ads to be more relevant. And (most) publishers have an audience monetization problem. So a new crop of ad formats offers to solve both problems by letting advertisers benefit from social sharing by distributing editorial content to prospective customers. But are they safe for publishers?

All work slightly differently. The New York Times’ Ricochet lets advertisers piggyback on articles as they travel around the Web. Fortune is creating bespoke editorial content for advertisers for their own distribution purposes. And Forbes is letting advertisers run ad units containing Forbes article links around the Web.

“An important part of the future of publishing is letting your content move more freely in different shapes and sizes and where the consumer wants to consume it,” said Drew Schutte, chief integration officer at Condé Nast, one of the non-Times publishers using Ricochet, “and bringing the advertiser along with it is the obvious next step.” With Ricochet, he said, “The advertiser gets to use our content, and we get the benefit of more traffic and the advertising revenue.”

But such products may present pitfalls for publishers. People will need to keep track of where articles are running. The publisher also has to make sure articles aren’t being distributed by advertisers who are in conflict with the media brand or that the content is perceived as endorsing the advertiser. “So ‘Dr. Oz Fat Loss’ could bid on Forbes’ health and wellness articles; then you’ve got a problem,” said Peter Minnium, the IAB’s head of brand initiatives. In the same way brands have always had to be aware of their ads’ surroundings, he said, “The publisher is in an environment someone else controls.”

That’s certainly the case with a product from OneSpot, a startup headed by former Time Inc. exec Steve Sachs. The online ad platform combs the Web for articles that mention an advertiser’s product or are relevant to the client’s target audience, then packages them into an ad that the client can run anywhere. Sachs said the product gets advertisers a return on content by putting it in front of prospective customers and retargeting them, and that “most publishers want the traffic.” True, but will they mind their content being monetized without their permission and without being compensated? Sachs says OneSpot is abiding by fair use practices by using only the article headline and image and redirecting the traffic back to the publisher’s site. But, he added, OneSpot would stop using a publisher’s content if asked.

Elsewhere, publishers are treading carefully into this new world. In Fortune’s case, the advertiser will have input in the story topic only and won’t get to see the articles before they’re finished. With Ricochet, perhaps the safest example, the Times is limiting users’ ability to attach their ads to stories about themselves or their competitors “to avoid any perception that the brand was involved in the creation of the article” and to avoid “participating in any kind of denigration,” said Michael Zimbalist, vp, R&D operations, The New York Times Co. Other users can apply their own restrictions. “It’s important at the beginning to be a little bit aggressive on the guidelines,” said Schutte.