Have Publishers Lost Their Minds With Outbrain?

Sometime when I speak with a media salesperson over a beer or a burger, they share something that at first sounds benign, but then causes that moment to freeze as a market issue gets crystallized.  This past week -- over a frozen Margarita, no less -- one of those moments occurred.

A media sales rep, whose site sits firmly on a media plan for one of the top-spending brands in advertising, shared what his client said regarding premium sites that buy traffic. This client asked this sales rep “Is your site buying traffic?” -- and then answered his own question with a plea of “Please, don’t.” 

The client explained that when he learns a premium site he buys directly is buying traffic, he moves from a comfortable to an uncomfortable understanding of that site’s audience.  When this happens, the client said, he has to shift strategies from buying the whole site to buying targeted audience segments on that site instead. 



If you’re a publisher or a media sales rep, sit with that for a second. You just went from selling season tickets to selling individual games to your biggest fan.

This client is saying that premium branded sites should maintain a natural size.  I believe a natural size is achieved from bookmark and direct url traffic, through relevant organic search, and from social media links.  Growing site traffic through content distribution deals is like melting ice into a glass of fine wine.  Buying traffic through Outbrain turns a black-tie event into a keg party.

Last November, Time Inc. announced a $100 million keg-party deal with Outbrain.  So now its sites will have more traffic, and hence more inventory, while lowering the quality of its audience through the lens of common sense. 

For example:

Food & Wine magazine (part of Time Inc.) has a rate base of 925,000.  Advertisers see that number and it makes sense. reports 8.5 million monthly unique visitors.  That number makes far less sense for this affluent brand.  How can its prestigious audience demographics not get watered down at this unnatural size? 

Here are more examples of premium sites listed as Outbrain customers, who appear to have outgrown their brand’s natural size:

New York magazine has a rate base of 400,000. It reports 14.5 million monthly uniques.  Only 8.4 million people live in New York City.

INC. magazine reaches a clearly defined audience of “owners of growing businesses.”  The magazine’s rate base is 700,000.  The Web site reports 7 million monthly uniques, which makes the site audience less clearly defined.

GQ magazine has a rate base of 925,000 readers who set the pace of men’s fashion.  The Web site delivers a pack-like number of 6.7 million monthly uniques.

Finally, there is The Daily News -- an iconic brand and one of the most well-read papers in the New York metro area.  It delivers a monthly circulation of roughly 1.1 million readers. reports a head-scratching 45.9 million monthly uniques. 

The idea that buying a click to your site for 10 cents through Outbrain is going to then convert into a more dedicated site visitor is just an excuse. The real reason sites do this: to have more impressions for their lower quality advertisers buying the site via RTB, and to help fulfill orders sold to advertisers who bought that site directly.  Neither outcome helps premium publishers increase the value of what they sell.

Outbrain is just another short-term fix that creates a long-term problem. You don’t have to take my word for it. Take it from one of the biggest-spending clients in the business, who clearly explained why this idea of buying traffic is sending premium publishers in the wrong direction.

10 comments about "Have Publishers Lost Their Minds With Outbrain?".
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  1. kevin lee from Didit / eMarketing Association / Giving Forward, April 23, 2015 at 11:40 a.m.

    Intersting point. Publishers and Broadcasters have always had marketing departments and media budgets (often made up partially of barter with other publishers/broadcasters).  The Audience development role at the publisher is a critical part of their ability to deliver on the promises the salespeople make.  However, as you point out there may be a perception (right or wrong, but perception trumps fact) that over-purchase of traffic in an attempt to engage in media arbitrage is somehow diluting the value of the ad impressions at the publisher.
    Publisher may need to resort to some way of proving that traffic obtained through certain channels is not diluting the value of the publisher brand.
    The other question is: How many of the large medua buyers feel that some sources of traffic are dilutive to quality?  Tweet clicks, Facebook clicks, clicks from shared emails?  Where does one draw the line? 

  2. Chris Elwell from Third Door Media, April 23, 2015 at 11:58 a.m.

    "The real reason sites do this: to have more impressions for their lower quality advertisers buying the site via RTB..."  Exactly. Once a publisher decides to feed at the bottom, it has to employ bottom feeder tactics.

    Great piece as usual, Ari.

  3. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., April 23, 2015 at 12:06 p.m.

    Well put, Ari, you are the first person I have heard voice in clear terms the problem with traffic acquisition of this type. When you further consider how Outbrain's optimization tends to drive to the lowest common denominator, it lends further credence to your argument that the additional traffic is not only dilutive but detrimental.

  4. Dana Todd from SRVR LLC, April 23, 2015 at 12:18 p.m.

    I disagree that buying attention at an article level is a bad idea or that it's overly dilutive to all publishers. The devil, as usual, is in the details.

    First of all, advertisers shouldn't be buying run of site ads, period. And publishers shouldn't sell them unless they truly are a broad audience site and the client is buying for general awareness goals (e.g. Coke or BP which may not need to differentiate at the HH or gender level). Both publishers and advertisers should be embracing the sophisticated targeting capabilities that are available to them; RTB doesn't have to be a dirty word if it's applied with the same precision as paid search.

    Merchandising your content through Outbrain or LinkedIn is no different than having checkout-line placement, or pushing free subscriptions with airline miles. We've got to drop the old ways of thinking about the value of media properties in terms of "real subscribers" as if they're somehow a homogenous group of people with the exact same characteristics. If digital marketing has taught us anything, it's that the consumer makeup is far less tidy than we ever believed and were taught by the old media planning ways. New day, new way.

    I'll grant you that Outbrain's contextual matching is sometimes a little iffy, but over time one hopes we'll see content targeted more at the individual level rather than context or random/highest bidder. It's all a matter of having better quality content in the database, matched up with better technology to a highly visible/reachable audience. One of the reason Facebook's revenues are growing so rapidly is that it's taking what is essentially a massive, broad and undifferentiated global audience and allowing marketers to be extremely precise in their targeting around the psychographic and demographic makeup of the individual. And the units that perform best on Facebook are CONTENT - not traditional ads.

    If advertisers take the time to think through their content strategy and fund it with the same resources and creativity they do their advertising strategy, and if publishers step up their game to help connect properly with data and people segments properly, we'll get a win/win. I think we're just sort of in the ugly adolescent phase where we have a predominance of clickbait headlines and gossip sites participating. The market is ripe for a classier offering.

  5. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, April 23, 2015 at 12:45 p.m.

    I think Dana is on the right track.
    To suggest that publishers are using Outbrain to generically "buy traffic" the  way they did in the aughties is oversimplified -- few Publishers can arbitrage a $.10 click into a $100+ RPM visit. So something else is going on....

    Probably one of three things in order of likelihood.

    1) Publishers are using Outbrain and content amplification to boost their highest revenue pages: ie. their native advertising campaigns.

    2) A general barter arrangement, where Publishers are getting traffic as well as revenue in exchange for distribution of the Outbrain widget or 
    3) A story is on fire and the Publisher want to get as broad distribution for it as possible.

  6. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, April 23, 2015 at 2:36 p.m.

    Dana & Andrew, one of the benefits of writing these columns is hearing thoughtful feedback from people who have opposing perspectives -- thanks for yours I read every word and I can see the sense in them.  But...on a common sense level, how can for example, have almost twice as many unqiues as there are residents in NYC and not raise any eyebrows?  I get some content "catches fire" but in this case, I think there is more smoke than fire.

  7. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, April 23, 2015 at 3:34 p.m.

    As a "Premium Publisher" by your definition, each bean counting is different from site to site.  First, new member come to the website to enter sweepstakes and contest. We have a number of members who sign up then not enter any sweepstakes. The new member gets cold feet and do nothing. We don't take them out of database for a while. Most sites never take them out. Then there are people who join up with other motives such as hackers looking for backdoors. Our millionship would be over a million if we didn't clean out our database for people have no intention of being a serious member. Our true membership is under 400,000 and we will be cleaning out database again soon.

    So what needs to be changed is to ask publshers when was the last time their database was cleaned out and the conditions instead of asking about total numbers.  I will put my numbers again any publisher on the net because I KNOW that I have a great database full of members.

    In the last year, we run Facebook sweepstakes by two Fortune 50 companies through their ad agencies. Both said after the sweep we secured more entries to their sweepstakes to their sweeps (American only, 21 years of age or older) than Facebook. The point is there are many speciality websites that target for markets and demographics that match their campaigns. The second point is Facebook and other social media sites has big numbers but are they a good match for the ad campaigns. Better yet we cost a faction of the price than what Facebook charges.

    However our actual per visit per day is over 30 minutes. We have many members who enter many sweepstakes as a their hobby.  These members are very premium by industry standards. 40 to 60 in age, 68 percent female, middle to under class and many with college educations. Our members are loyal to advertisers that sponsors sweepstakes. In a survery we conducted close to 75 percent buy from the advertisers and take interest in their products. The numbers are much lower for those who are entering just for the prize than industry than the industry believes.

  8. Augustine Fou from FouAnalytics, April 24, 2015 at 2:06 p.m.

    The research data from WhiteOps/ANA from Dec 2014 and our data corroborate that "sourced traffic" has 5 - 10X more bot traffic involved. So while it may be an oversimplification of the cause and effect, any publisher that buys traffic in any way, should be more suspect. 

    Advertisers who are looking for human audiences will do well to steer away from these kinds of publishers and focus more on publishers that do not engage in this kind of activity, if for nothing else but the fact that this kind of activity makes the data unreliable. 

  9. Mani Gandham from Instinctive, May 1, 2015 at 10:11 p.m.

    Definitely agree Ari. This is a great post that explains the major issues with this kind of traffic buying, and if anyone dives deeper and looks at the amount of fraud/bot traffic as well as incredibly high bounce rates of > 80%, it's clear that this is not a sustainable system.

    There are only so many "real" visitors online and they go where they go, trying to artificially move them to other sites through clickbait links (which don't really need any recommendation logic applied since its all CPC anyway) just dilutes the entire value of a site. All publishers are doing is reducing the worth of their inventory and the effectiveness of their direct sales teams.

    Programmatic buying through RTB will further eat into any benefits of direct sales and rates will just keep falling across the board. It's sad that such short-term gains are being mortgaged on long-term viability of the publishers' best inventory; the readers.

  10. Martin Wesley from AddRelevancy, April 19, 2016 at 4:43 p.m.

    This article is pretty spot on... We have just launched a new blogger/publisher monetization solution called AddRelevancy (, and we think it will help publsihers regain some of their sanity.

    We refer to it as PLA Expansion for the open web. Most content areas are perfect for AddRelevancy, and it is super easy to sign-up and get started.

    Ideal content areas for AddRelevancy are lifestyle, consumer product reviews, consumer technology, apparel, and all types of vertical content categories like DIY, mountain biking, shopping, and gift guides.

    Check it out, and would love your feedback. In short, anything that is referencing or speaking about a consumer product category for hard goods that you can purchase online.

    What is not very good for AddRelevancy is general news, finance, joke content, adult, gambling, or investing.



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