As a publisher of over 65 content sites including such brands as sheknows.com and craveonline.com, we live through the same struggles as all other publishers in effectively marketing our content and sites to a broader audience. We spend millions of dollars to produce great content and in order to make that a worthwhile investment we need to make sure the widest audience possible discovers and engages with our content.
As a publisher, you can only do so much to grow audience through SEO. Inevitably, unless you are an SEO shop or a "content farm"-type publisher whose core focus is producing "made-for-AdSense" content, you can only expect to drive so much traffic to your website through search engines. Even then, the audience brought in through search tends to be less engaged, consuming fewer page views, and spending less time on site than those users brought in from other sources. So while search traffic has its value, for a brand advertising-supported publishing business like ours, direct traffic (the Holy Grail) and high-quality referring traffic have the most value to publishers like us. Both of those types of traffic require great content as the core to drive audience. It requires content that builds your website brand and compels people to type your website into their browser (direct) or compels people to link to your content from their own website or social media account (referral).
In the never-ending quest to grow one's audience, a publisher can choose to buy traffic to their site or market their content. Most publishers buy traffic as a way to drive users to their content. They do so through a myriad of vendors, and usually in the form of SEM or other CPC-based media. The practice is so prevalent that traffic acquisition has undoubtedly evolved into a massive business online with hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year in the United States alone. While well-intentioned traffic acquisition is a healthy part of the publishing landscape in that it ultimately leads to the creation of large, high-quality web real estate (i.e., websites) for advertisers to spend against, the negative practice that I am seeing more and more in my interactions with third-party publishers is that people are buying traffic more as a means of arbitraging ad spends than they are as a means of growing the long-term value of their publishing brand. The problem is that good traffic costs big money, especially when buying it from Google where CPCs for popular words are costly, thus making traffic arbitraging very expensive and therefore unprofitable. Since buying good traffic in a profitable manner is difficult to impossible, inevitably there's a growing number of publishers that are buying huge volumes of low-quality/low-cost traffic against sponsored or well-sold pages on their site. There are a slew of publishers that I suspect are using questionable audience acquisition tactics, such as buying cheaper male-lifestyle eyeballs and sending them to high-CPM food web pages, or, buying traffic from fraudulent vendors that use computer bots or programs to artificially visit and click a site (and its ads) via remote-based servers, coming into your site by U.S. proxy servers.
Since we all agree that viewing traffic as a raw number without regard to its quality is a low-value proposition for both advertisers and long-term-minded publishers, the real winners and value-creators are going to be those publishers who leverage the solutions out there to market their content in a way that can help drive real users (not bots) to their websites. These solutions are out there and come with a varying degree of quality and cost-effectiveness. Some of the solutions I have been exposed to in the marketplace are as follows:
Content Discovery Engines
In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of "traffic exchange" technology options available to publishers. This genre of content-discovery is a personal favorite of mine (more on that later) as they automate and improve upon a practice of content discovery (the link exchange) that has existed since the beginning of the Internet. The way these traffic exchange networks work is that members sign up and place a content widget on the pages of their own website. The widget displays content from other websites and when a user clicks on a piece of content, they are sent to an intermediary landing page that presents or "surfaces up" other content from participating sites. Publishers participating in the traffic exchange are promised to receive one to four unique visitors back to their own site for every unique visitor they send to the exchange. This return traffic promise is satisfied by the technology surfacing/distributing content in widgets and on the intermediary landing page in a way that turns each user into a consumer of multiple pieces of content. Great, sign me up, right?
Well, sort of great. With website traffic being such a valuable proposition, publishers need to carefully analyze these technologies to understand the players and what they bring to the table. Vendors in this space include companies like MGID, 2leep, Wahoha, Scribol, and many more that seem to be popping up by the day. The results from each of these vendors vary widely. I suspect that some of these vendors are playing a bit of three-card Monte by getting publishers to focus purely on the number of inbound visits being sent their way and not the quality of those visitors. Others, I suspect, are working with foreign-based portals in India, the Philippines, and elsewhere to drive international traffic back to your site, essentially taking your quality U.S.-based traffic, selling it off to bidders, and returning to you a portion of unsellable international traffic. Additionally, the engagement or relevancy of users from most of these exchanges rates from poor to average. Ultimately, publishers working with one of these traffic exchanges, that makes a business out of selling traffic, need to drill down into their Google Analytics reports or Omniture reports to check the geo-location of returned users, time spent, and pages per visit in order to determine if high-quality, monetizable users are being returned to their site. Some of the aforementioned exchanges are better than others, but publishers need to test on their own to be sure.
While the results from the use of these traffic exchange technologies vary widely, the concept of growing a site's audience through the syndication of content is, as I mentioned above, a personal favorite of mine. As a publisher of over a billion page views a month in multiple distinct verticals (men, women, teens, etc.), we have at some point or another tested most of the vendors out there in a quest to find one that best fit our needs.
One company we worked with a year or so ago is Crowd Ignite. (Disclosure: the results we experienced using Crowd Ignite were so great that we felt compelled to make a strategic investment in the company in early 2011 - putting money where our mouth is.) Crowd Ignite appealed to us as it took the unique approach of verticalizing the participating sites, its content, and the intermediary landing pages so that the content being "surfaced" up was relevant to the user, thereby causing them to click on more pieces of content and to be more engaged with the content (i.e., higher pages per visit, time spent, etc.). The inherent relevancy of verticalizing content and audience, combined with a context-match engine and a behavioral algorithm that understands the content consumption patterns of individuals coming from specific sites and types of content, is leveraged to get users to consume lots of pieces of content in any given session. Additionally, Crowd Ignite was focused on working with higher-quality publishers in its network (less publishers but ones of higher quality). That drives higher engagement with the content in the platform. Unlike Outbrain and some of the other vendors I noted above, Crowd Ignite does not sell traffic, so all of the traffic generated by the network is returned to its members.
We all know about Google CPC and the valuable traffic it can generate for a website, so I won't spend time going over that vendor. In the same category of CPC-based traffic vendors is Outbrain. This is a company that has networked thousands of properties and allows publishers to buy and sell traffic across its network. I have found Outbrain to be fairly effective at driving a relevant audience that is fairly engaged. The cost of this traffic varies with CPCs that range across the board (anywhere between $0.02 and $0.10+ in my limited experience). For larger publishers, a bit more flush with marketing dollars, Outbrain appears to, for now, be a more cost-effective solution to buying SEM traffic via Google, which can be expensive (probably as a result of a larger pool of buyers bidding up the inventory).
On the less reputable side of the coin, there are a myriad of companies (that I will not name even though I am oh so tempted to) that sell "cheap" traffic but that fall into the grey area of "are you getting real traffic or computer 'bot' traffic?" Regardless of whether the traffic is human or "bot," the bounce rates are high, time spent on site is low, pages per visit is low, etc. These companies do little to help you grow a real audience and are of little to no value for your advertisers. My general guide is that anyone selling you large volumes of traffic for a few pennies a visit is playing games and is driving you traffic that does your site, your brand, and the advertisers supporting you no value.
The moral of the story is that there are good, quality users online and there are a number of different ways to find them and bring them to your site. Some expensive and some cost-effective. Conversely, there are many low-quality places to buy audience. Some publishers are unwittingly buying low-quality traffic and not knowing any better. So get educated. Some publishers are knowingly buying low-quality or fraudulent traffic, so advertisers beware. If you are a real publisher, producing quality content and truly interested in building long-lasting value in your business by cultivating an engaged audience within your property, then focus on marketing your content to the right audiences and not just buying "eyeballs" (human or otherwise). Whether buying traffic or marketing content, ensure you evaluate the ROI of the various vendors out there and make the decision that is best for your business and for the business of the advertiser who pays to support your business.
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Brian Fitzgerald is co-founder of Evolve Media Corp, a unique media company unparalleled in its ability to offer brands a complete solution to online advertising. Brian first broke into the world of online ad sales in 2001 when he co-founded and became president of Gorilla Nation Media, LLC, the world's largest online branded sales company and a division of Evolve Media. In 2004, Brian further pioneered in the online ad space by developing AtomicOnline, a web publishing business, developing leading consumer Internet brands such as SheKnows.com, Craveonline.com, TheFashionSpot.com, and GameRevolution.com. Recognizing the growing creative and video needs of brand marketers, in 2006 Brian launched Double Helix, a creative agency, and SpringBoard Video, a video platform and branded entertainment division. Recently, all four business units were brought together under one corporate umbrella, Evolve Media, allowing the business to leverage its synergies and scale to deliver truly bottom-up integrated media programs for Fortune 500 marketers, targeted across branded content sites delivering the right engaged affinity audience. The Evolve mission is to deliver content, context, and creative with scale.
Prior to founding Gorilla Nation Media, Brian was an intellectual property attorney representing some of the entertainment industry's largest independent film distributors, music companies, and talent, dealing with copyright, trademark, contractual, and litigation issues. Prior to this, upon graduating from law school, Brian began his career as an IP attorney at MGM Studios. Brian graduated Cum Laude from UCSB in 1992 with a BA in Law and Sociology. He was awarded membership into Phi Beta Kappa. Brian received a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School in 1996. He founded Gorilla Nation in 2001 with business partner Aaron Broder. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
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