Commentary

The Rise Of The Content Amplification Agency

History sometimes repeats itself.

So those with longer memories may start to see parallels between the rapidly growing content amplification space, led by content marketing distribution platforms like Outbrain and Taboola, and the rise of the search engine marketing industry in the early 2000’s. Will the CAA (content amplification agency) be the new SEM agency?

A few veterans who made their fortunes building SEM agencies, like Reprise Media and 360i, are watchfully eyeing the space, and at least a couple of them have actively positioned themselves as experts in the space. NativeLift, founded by a pair of ex-Reprise executives, now exclusively manages “paid media distribution and optimization” for its clients. Surely many SEM/SEO shops, as well as existing content marketing agencies, are now considering the addition of paid “content amplification” expertise to their capabilities presentations.  

So should your agency, like NativeLift, go after this opportunity? Will a new independent content amplification agency sector emerge to help manage the myriad of content amplification options? Or do content amplification tools simply become technically integrated into existing content marketing management platforms like Newscred, Contently, Kapost, Compendium, and Hubspot?

There are good arguments for and against a new sector. Arguments for:

It's where the money is. Ten years ago if you asked a search executive to compare his preference for SEO (organic search engine optimization) and SEM (paid search marketing optimization) you would rapidly discover an immediate and passionate preference for SEM.

SEM spends grew with performance and were very measurable, and budgets only tended to grow.

Today, in the divide between content creation and content distribution, it is distribution/amplification that commands 70%-80% of the budget.  This is not surprising, really, branded content may be great, but if it doesn’t reach an audience, it is merely wasted resources.

Inevitably, any agency (including SEOs, The Big Four, PR firms, and content marketing agencies) that offers content marketing services to brands will begin to notice the amplification budget, just as creative agencies inevitably expanded into media buying.

Complexity: there are many paths to heaven. Outbrain’s success, and the popularity of content marketing in general, has been rapidly expanding the field of content amplification. But while a number of fast followers like Taboola,  Gravity and ContentAd compete directly with Outbrain to drive audiences through publisher-based clicks, even more companies are seeking to compete indirectly to achieve the same ends.  Companies like DISQUS (comments), Movable Media (Influencers), Sharethrough (Native Ads), and Zemanta (Blogger tools) all share the goal of helping content attract an audience, and each with different approaches to content distribution.  

The Outbrain and Taboola model simply won’t work for everyone. Their headline-driven approach is predicated on click-through rates, engagement, and price, but not necessarily relevance. So today, they tend to attract direct marketers, lead-gen guys, and consumer-focused marketers who offer up eye-grabbing headlines.

Other approaches may wind up being much more effective to amplify content to a more narrow, targeted audience or a B2B marketer. And so an agency middleman may be needed not just to optimize one’s Outbrain campaign, but also to compare the effectiveness and performance of these competing substitutes in the amplification space.

The CAA might be encouraged to grow the market. Perhaps Outbrain should embrace the content amplification agency.  Surely the emergence of SEM firms helped grow the demand for search engine marketing, as these middlemen went out and evangelized Google Adsense as the most cost-effective means of demand generation.  

To a large extent, Google embraced the SEM sector in the early 2000s.  Similarly, content amplification firms like Outbrain and Taboola could ultimately choose to encourage these kinds of channel sales through agencies and middlemen to grow the demand for their services. But so far, they have not.

Which leads us to reasons why the CAA sector may not happen:

Opacity may actually be better for everyone, especially readers.The first early days of search engine marketing were highly transparent, at least by today’s standards.  AdWord’s intellectual predecessor Overture created an open auction environment that made it pellucidly evident which keywords were worth what.  Google’s subsequent AdWords product wisely concealed some of the auction pricing data, but nevertheless offered deep data on which keywords were performing.  Ultimately it was these troves of data that enabled the SEM industry of middlemen to emerge.

In essence, the SEM created value by finding areas of opportunity where relevant audiences could be found at lower prices, by deep technical analysis and judicious selection of keywords. And realizing this, Google has been moving in an increasingly opaque direction with its search data.

But can the CAA similarly create value? The current content amplification leaders, Outbrain and Taboola, seem to have internalized the lesson of Google and offer relatively little insight for marketers to optimize for their tools.  And like Google, they currently prefer their algorithm and auction mechanism to be a “black box,” so the only guaranteed lever that customers know will work is creating relevant, engaging content (probably not really), and bidding up the price (really).  

While marketers may not like that they can’t get an “edge,” we are still dealing with content, so this opacity may be in the interest of  readers.

The gaming of search marketing, especially the distributed Adwords product, AdSense, led us into the content farm era, where millions of meaningless articles were created to capture keywords and clicks.  If Outbrain and Taboola follow Google’s lead toward more quality and less gamesmanship, it may benefit everyone, at the cost of growing the market a bit more slowly.

But then there there would be little value that CAA will add in the optimization area except perhaps trying many different content headlines to see which ones grab eyeballs. The principal value of the CAA may not be in ongoing optimization for a specific tool, but rather in determining which tools will be most effective over time. But it is hard for me to see how this approach would support an ongoing 15% media buying fee.

2 comments about "The Rise Of The Content Amplification Agency".
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  1. Rich Ullman from Outbrain, Inc., January 10, 2014 at 12:57 p.m.

    Hi Andrew,

    History does keep repeating itself in digital. :)

    I can say that at Outbrain, we share your feelings about the opportunity in front of us. We work closely with hundreds of brands and agencies of all types: creative, social, media, PR and specialized content marketing shops. We also invest a lot of time in helping to evolve the existing marketplace through education initiatives, such as the Content Conversations meet-ups that happen globally each month and our partnerships with the Content Marketing Institute.

    All of this is focused on getting to a place where we’re able to put the best content recommendations in front of (each and every member of) the audience. And when that happens, yes, everyone wins.

  2. Craig Hodges from King Content, January 12, 2014 at 10:13 p.m.

    Great article Andrew. From the perspective of a content marketing agency we see amplification as a critical component of each and every strategy we develop. It dosent matter how good the content is that we produce if nobody is reading it. I also agree that we not only need to understand all of the options in the market but also use that knowledge to ensure our clients are getting the best possible outcome. That can be challenging given the amount of new options popping up in the market at the moment. I think if a content marketing agency dosent have a team dedicated to amplification like they would content creation, strategy or social then they are behind the eight ball.

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