Outbrain Review: Google Ad Words for Content Marketers?
Sales and Marketing Software

Outbrain Review: Google Ad Words for Content Marketers?

Content has become word de jour for most businesses and Content Marketing is its resulting best friend. But what does all this really mean? Kathryn Cave trials Outbrain’s PPC content discovery system, meets European MD Simon Edelstyn, and looks at the ever-changing role of content in modern businesses.

The other evening I popped out to the garden for a quick cup of tea only to find the seat ruined by a carpet of sodden pine needles. I clearly needed something to put on the chair, but casting my gaze round there was nothing to be found… until I spotted an old carrier bag bulging with yellowing papers, poking out of a box near the doorway. Ha! – I was supremely chuffed - pulling one out, I spread it on the seat and went upon my merry way. It was only later I realised: “blimey – I was sitting on my old clippings!”

That old stash I unearthed was from around seven/ eight years ago, yet the intervening time period has seen seismic changes ricocheting through the world of information. In the not-so-distant past, written stuff was generally determined by its platform. There was journalism which covered editorial for printed papers. There were blogs which featured vanity stories for the online space and there was copywriting which involved paid flim-flam for whatever marketing space was available. Well, not any longer… now everything is defined as content.

At first the term ‘content’ had a faintly derisive air about it. The quality of the information was still determined by where it was published. Print was top. Online was bottom. Social was below contempt. Now the quality of information produced is what counts, not the platform.  And a quick embarrassing skeg at my old clippings perfectly confirmed matters…


Content Marketing & Outbrain

Today marketing has to be journalism; a lot of journalism has gradually morphed into marketing… and content is suddenly the most important thing in every business. The Content Marketing Report 2013, sponsored by Spiceworks, showed that 82% of respondents are increasing content production over the next 12 months.  This means people are slowly starting to see that producing interesting, high quality information is key… because if it is decent (and is put before the right eyeballs) it will be shared and distributed.

As this gradual revelation is taking hold, marketers, who previously took a ‘smash ’n’ grab’ approach to advertising are leaping on the bandwagon in droves. Awful sales collateral simply doesn’t wash anymore. Today we live in a world of Content Marketing… a world, where information has to be good to get seen above the rising tide of dross. In fact the IMN 2013 Content Market Survey showed that 90% of those surveyed think Content Marketing is important, whilst 44% are struggling with sourcing relevant content.  

The difficulty of course, is monetising. Content Marketing takes a long-term, slow, nurturing approach which is far harder to show value on. Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, the IMN 2013 Content Marketing Survey reveals that the most effective vehicles to date have been social media (51%), websites (44%) and email blasts (42%) probably because these mediums allow for the publication of good quality information that can be distributed to a relevant audience. However, the challenge for marketers is to find a new audience of people who are interested in their topic.

This is where recommenders like Outbrain can help and why we’ve been trailing the system. Because even if you don’t know the name Outbrain, you will certainly recognise the recommender box that appears at the bottom of publisher sites. This promotes content via a PPC model, provides incremental revenue for partners and offers new audiences for brands.

Outbrain makes a lot of noise about putting content at the heart of its business and at the end of last year, in an extremely public episode, ousted swathes of its spammier customers in a bid to build more long term trust with readers. Reports at the time estimated that this could wipe as much 25% off its revenue, and while it wasn’t as bad as all that, Simon Edelstyn, European Managing Director makes it clear when I speak to him that it hit the company hard.


Visiting Outbrain

I’m sitting in Outbrain’s rather swish office, just off Oxford Street, in Central London. Bright sunshine is flooding in through the floor to ceiling glass windows which span the length of the building, providing dizzying views on the road below. The team has just moved here and Simon Edelstyn, European Managing Director tells me in the two and a half years since he began as the first European employee, the company has blitzed through four offices spaces to accommodate its fast-expanding staff.  

“Do you think people understand Content Marketing?” I ask: “People really understand the value in Content Marketing. However there is a real time-lag between understanding and actually doing,” Edelstyn replies:  “It means having a longer term perspective, building brand value over time.”

This is exactly what Outbrain is aiming for with its focus on content. Over the last few years a clutch of similar organisations have sprung up to service this space, but Outbrain seems to be making a concerted move towards occupying its niche as Google Adwords for Content Marketers. Simon Edelstyn, an alumni of Google describes how the companies are analogous in two ways: “We’re both principled in what we’re trying to do. And we’re both focused on the consumer.” He is keen to stress:  “Our aim is to be here for the long term. We continuously vet people’s content. We turn away campaigns all the time [because the content is not up to scratch].”

Interestingly, Outbrain also acquired Visual Revenue earlier in the year. This is a real-time analytics solution that aims to give publishers more engagement with content. Edelstyn tells me this provides real-time A/B testing on headlines, thus taking the process full circle by providing editorial with old school marketing techniques. In essence, Outbrain is aiming for a two pronged assault on the online content space: partnering with publishers and providing them with incremental revenue via PPC campaigns, whilst simultaneously improving its algorithms allowing it to serve more targeted recommendations and placing content interests at the heart of all interactions.

The on-going direction Edelstyn describes is getting better content into its network and building the technology to match up. Outbrain has 80 engineers in Tel Aviv whom it is using to keep fine tuning its algorithm. But what does all this mean in practice? In order to test how Outbrain works, IDG Connect ran a six week independent trial on two very different types of content.


Our Trial Campaign

IDG Connect ran an initial campaign for one month on its IT and business content. This was followed by a two-week trial campaign on light, entertaining, non-business content to gain a full holistic picture of how different styles of content resonated. Exactly the same parameters were set for each.


IDG Connect Trial Result

Duration: one month

Budget spent: £500

Impressions: 2.9 million

Clicks generated: 2,044

Click rate: 0.07% average

Cost Per Click: 22 pence

Content submitted: around 70 marketing and IT articles which were swapped in and out to maximise the response rate. These covered a wide range of topics and areas across the spectrum, but the core high performing articles identified themselves straight away.

Comparison trial: two weeks, with non-branded, non-business content generated 2850 clicks and allowed us to lower the cost per click price to 17 pence. This was largely down to the use of increasingly negative tongue in cheek headlines.


How it Works

Outbrain works on a pay per click price model which means you select the content that you want promoted and set a pay per click price – it really is very similar to Google Adwords.  You can supply as much copy as you want along with multiple headlines to help generate the maximum response.  Your content is then aggregated at the bottom of various publisher sites in line with what readers are viewing - the more times a piece of content is recommended, the more it served.



The system starts working straightaway and you can add in as much new content as you like. The account management is fantastic and you are provided with regular updates along with the ability to log in to a live online system to view your stats changing throughout the day. This means you can easily modify the content you’re promoting and swap headlines in and out.

Outbrain offers a great opportunity to enhance your brand by having your content served on big name, respected publishers like the Guardian. It also offers Content Marketers a chance to maximise the impact of specific campaigns based on set pre-determined objectives.  As Outbrain links do not show up on Google, traffic that is driven back to your site will help improve your SEO.



Once the system deems that a piece of content is popular and is generating a lot of impressions it serves the article more.  This means that whilst a content piece may not be generating the highest click through rate, it might still monopolise the impressions, which wastes budget on less popular pieces.

The top referring publishers for our campaign were the Sun (before the paywall went up) and the Guardian which is probably more of a tribute to publishers on board than any special resonance with our content.  Certainly Sun readers don’t seem the most obvious audience for our regionally specific range of IT, business and marketing content.  


Which Content Performed Well From IDG Connect?

In order to make Outbrain work for you, it will be important you have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve up front. In our campaign the objective was simply to swap content in and out to see what worked and what didn’t.

  1. Infographic: Does Mobility Make You Selfish? This generated the most impressions but a lower click rate than other high performers (0.7%)
  2. Friday Rant: Working From Home’s Not Working This had the highest click through rate by the end of the campaign (0.20% CTR)
  3. Australia: The Start-Up Nation Raised by Google Could be Worth $109 Billion by 2033 (0.18% CTR)
  4. Product Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 vs. iPhone 5 (0.13% CTR)


Content Analysis

Not surprisingly the content that performed well tended to be light and engaging. And the content pieces that attracted interest rose to the top straight away. This makes having clear aims up front extremely important because articles that did well in this campaign required different levels of interaction from users once they’d clicked through to the website:

The selfish mobility infographic is short and only takes a minute to look through (1.32) – Google analytics showed Outbrain recommendees spent (on average) the same amount of time looking at it as our usual audience.

The working from home rant is also fairly short and provides a lovely opinion-driven article; this generated roughly the same level of interaction as our normal visitors.

The Australia piece on the other hand is really long, around 2,000 words, and discusses a research report on the Australian start-up scene, which you’re either going to be interested in or simply not at all. Outbrain recommendees spent a quarter of the time reading this article than our own audience.

The iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy product review provided the most interesting outcome of all because it is both very long and included a lot of shouty comments. This is not the type of thing we generally publish and actually attracted longer read times from Outbrain recommedees than our own core audience.


How to Maximise an Outbrain Campaign

Outbrain research released this July shows that headlines with negative superlatives get more than 60% more click-throughs than those with a positive. They also get more than 30% higher click-throughs than those with none (analysis was based on a four month sample of last year's "Summer" data). In light of this, we ran a two week content comparison against very light non-business content and the results spoke for themselves. In half the time we generated 2850 clicks. This was based on around 17 pieces of content with several subject lines submitted for each.

The highest performers were the most tongue in cheek headlines: “Pretentious Director with an Awful Film Idea” (0.24% CTR), “The Life and Death of the World’s Unluckiest Forger” (0.22% CTR) and “I Hate Facebook, Google & Twitter… and Want My Identity Back” (0.21% CTR). We also gradually increased the CTR per day by making the headlines more and more negative and lowered the cost per click from 25 pence 17 pence through the campaign.  The read times on these content pieces were also very high with nine minute average read times per article one weekend.



Today most businesses realise that content is their most important asset. And as Content Marketing hits more organisations’ radar it is becoming ever more obvious that the better quality, more entertaining information has more chance of increasing audience engagement. This means that topical recommenders like Outbrain, which place a concerted emphasis on high end content and help deliver new readers, offer an invaluable service to businesses by pushing those with similar interests back to the brand’s websites.

If you have the right content, a clear idea of the type of reaction you want and are looking for a CPC model Outbrain is a fantastic way to generate interest. As ever, the main challenge for marketers though, will be to prove how their campaign has been monetised.  Because although Outbrain campaigns can be optimised for maximum impact, at present the way the algorithm serves content based on impressions doesn’t necessarily make for the most cost effective use of budget.

People also have a natural distrust of paid for recommendations and so the more unique and un-promotional your content the better it will tend to perform. This is true across the Content Marketing spectrum and you can see why negative, tongue in cheek headlines proved especially successful on the Outbrain trial. However, this type of engagement will be more difficult for very serious brands to pull off. And increasingly, marketers’ jobs will be to provide the best content on their websites to achieve the longest read times and increase the value of interaction.

In 2013 marketers need to have a very strong, holistic understanding of their content strategy and what they want to achieve from any specific campaign. In the bigger picture, cheap low quality content doesn’t work anymore. And today’s marketers increasingly need to become storytellers, journalists and copywriters (all rolled into one) in order to get their message heard.


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Kathryn Cave

Editor at IDG Connect

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