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Are Recommended Links the Gateway to Brand Hell? 

July 30, 2015 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

Warning: If you’re 100% focused on short-term revenue with little regard for your brand, your customers, or what they think, you don’t need to read further. 


This press release recently caught my eye: Revcontent Powers 100 Billion Content Recommendations Per Month.  Allow me to translate: A company that is unknown to the average consumer is creating 100 billion content links per month. Research says that these links are clicked by someone (or something, as the “clicker” is loosely defined as consumers, bots or something in between) .1% of the time resulting in more than 100 million visits per month.

I’ve always judged these content-recommendation platforms with my own version of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game: How many clicks away from the worst of the web do they put me?  If you click on their “Recommended Links” on subsequent pages, how quickly are you on a page that you wouldn’t want anyone to know you’re on? Just like the Kevin Bacon game shows that everyone in Hollywood is connected to the actor, my version shows that with shady recommendations you always get to a very, very dark place in six clicks or less.

Let’s be clear, there is considerable opportunity and white space in the category of automating links to relevant content for audiences. Many of our members have deals with companies like Outbrain and Gravity that provide incremental revenue and helps them fund consumer access to free content. The same innovation that we’ve seen in automating the delivery of advertising is also happening in the automation of the delivery of content. This is a good thing, we just need innovation that focuses on customers.

uberhavocBack to Revcontent, which I pick on because they brag about the quality of the sites participating in their network, stating that they turn down 98% of applicants. It wasn’t surprising to me that I couldn’t find their module on any of our DCN member sites but I did track down a release last week for their latest, quite-proud client, Barstool Sports. And just to clarify: In my role, I don’t judge the type of content on sites. I simply advocate for trusted content relationships, in which consumers and advertisers get what they expect. So, using my Six Degrees of Crap test, the Revcontent links on Barstool Sports didn’t make it even close to six clicks before they took me someplace I wanted to immediately delete from my history (since I can’t actually “unsee” the content).

In fact, the Revcontent execution fails on every level:

  1. Poorly labeled links: Let’s start with the “Recommended Links”  module which is poorly labeled (heads up to Barstool Sports, it’s worth reading about the FTC’s pending guidance on labeling). I chose to click on the most tasteful of the six links for my own peace of mind, yet I still ended up on a cesspool site in just one.
  1. Arbitrage: Typically, if the “Recommended Links” all drive to pages with their own “Recommended” links delivered by the same company, it’s a strong warning you’re going down a very bad path as a consumer, advertiser or as a publisher. It’s an arbitrage game and you’re the willing victim.
  1. URL: Look at the address of the destination page. In this case, the links were driving users to a site called uberhavoc.com. Not sure I can (or need to) say more than that. Other popular domains include buzzfudge.com, dailyquenchers.com, buzztrend.com. On the link-swapping side, you’ll find zergnet, crowdignite and other players.
  1. Cookie littering: Clicking on any link results in countless 3rd party tracking cookies sometimes more than 100. Blue Cava, eXelate, BlueKai, Audience Science, LiveRamp, Aggregate Knowledge, Neustar, Semasio, Krux, Dotomy, Videology, Rocket Fuel, Chango, Tynt, 33Across, Quantcast, DoubleClick, DataLogix, Simpli.fi, Turn, MediaMath, Casale, Criteo, TradeDesk, dStillery, Advertising.com, Specific Media, Adapt.tv, Facebook, OpenX, AdTech, Rubicon, Pubmatic, LiveRail, BrightRoll, Rightmedia, Kauli, Twitter, impact, Sonobi, Burst, AdScale, LiveRail, AppNexus, Tapad and dozens of others all felt a need to know that I clicked on a single garbage link likely in order to retarget me elsewhere. The full map of trackers (hat tip: Ghostery) from that one click is essentially all you need to see to understand why adblocking adoption is skyrocketing with consumers. NOTE TO AD TECH: if you think the solution to cookie littering is more nefarious methods like digital fingerprinting then please call me so I can explain why you’re nuts.
  1. Brand Destructive: Now, let’s get to the really bad.  Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Smart Car, JetBlue, Oreo, Staples, Budweiser, Comcast, Pizza Hut, Purina and countless other brand advertisements are all running next to this “Recommended content.” If you’re the Chief Marketing Officer for any of these brands, I challenge you to rationalize how this type of media plan isn’t destroying the value you spend dearly on to move minds and create conversations around your brands. There’s a “brand halo” that comes along with placing an ad in a terrific context. Certainly the reverse is true as well. If you’re not factoring in brand safety and targeting clean, well-lit environments, then you’re killing one Super Bowl ad with millions of fifty-cent clicks. Unlike other media, more than 65% of digital advertising continues to be mostly crappy direct response ads driving brands into a death spiral.

Ok, if you read this far then I assume you care about your brand, your audience, and what they think of your brand. It’s clear there is a correlation between brand safety, viewability and pleasing customers. If you care about clean, well-lit environments then you absolutely must insist that all of your agency and media partners protect your brand fiercely which includes full transparency on where your campaigns are running. If you don’t then I just wasted your time as you clearly don’t care as much as you should.

contact me: @jason_kint

photo credit: Andreas Levers “Road to Hell” (modified from original)

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