Why Trust is the Key to Innovation… Especially in Publishing

by John LoGioco

In order to innovate successfully, you need feedback from your community on what’s working, what’s not, and what is ultimately useful. You need ideas, suggestions, complaints and most of all the ability to listen. Innovation is simply an output for employing these main ingredients with the implicit drive to always improve on how others interact with your offering.

However, only trusted companies have the luxury of courting this relationship between customers and ideas. You wouldn’t bother to help a company you didn’t trust.

One of the reassurances Outbrain has is that every innovation we’ve undertaken the last seven years has come from our publisher partners’ feedback: they trust us enough to invest their opinions and ideas in our company, and I would like to think they do so because they trust that, whatever we come up with will be helpful to them in the long term, which in our world means looking out for their audiences. A publisher that looses audience, or that drives audience away won’t be in the business of publishing for long.

illustration courtesy of Dominick Alves via Flickr

That is how any leading technology company innovates and operates. With trust. And that is how publishers must innovate as well.

The publishing community has at times struggled with the very real perception that we struggle to innovate, that we react to change rather than anticipate or initiate it, and that we do so slowly at best.

At a time when audiences are increasingly turning to disruptive, social sources for content, many publishers who have in fact spent decades building tremendous equity with audiences are now left wondering if there’s a place for them in this new paradigm.

That should no longer be the case. Here’s why.


The audience is the boss.

Turns out, that’s true for everyone, regardless of position or company, in publishing. Audiences will determine if our businesses survive. Audiences will determine which brands actually become publishers, and which emerging platforms will be around for awhile. In order to innovate, we need feedback from these audiences on what’s working, what’s not, and what is ultimately useful to them before they simply get it somewhere else.

illustration courtesy of french_skippy via Flickr

The truth is, audiences have been giving us this feedback for many years, sending precise signals on what they want and what they don’t want with each click and each movement of the mouse.

Let’s start with one of the more obvious signals: We can be fairly confident that audiences aren’t fond of banner ads. Why? Clickthroughs and revenues have plunged over the years. Audiences simply started ignoring them (and yet spending on online display ads increased by 32% last year, according to Nielsen. Innovative thinking?).

Another signal growing in strength: If native advertising continues to take the form of old advertorials, it’s already doomed. According to a recent study, audiences waste no time in delineating “real” content from advertorials and other forms of “baitive” advertising, and they’re starting to tune out the latter. Our own research suggests that when an ad, dressed to look like content, appears in a content stream, it negatively impacts the user trust of the entire stream by roughly 10%. The minute the viewability debate extends to native advertising, it’s as good as gone.

Study via Chartbeat, March 2014

Audiences have held up their end of the bargain, then — they’ve sent the signals, and now it’s up to us to listen. Audiences will continue to click if the content is trustworthy, and will stop clicking if they feel duped.

As a technology company, we tried to apply this basic principle when creating our solution for publishers. We asked, “What do audiences want when they come to a media site?” The answer we came up with was more (authentic) content, not more ads.

The goal of our technology is to help their audiences explore more content, across multiple sites and multiple devices, and it’s now become a significant growth opportunity for publisher traffic and revenue. But we didn’t start with the revenue. We started with the audience; we started with their frankness in what they wanted and what they didn’t want.

Getting more audience to discover more great content on publisher sites is a long term plan that is built on trust from the person who clicks on a recommended link all the way through to the discovery technology serving the link and hosting publisher.

Other actors have since come along and asked, “How can we extract value (opposite of creating value) from the nascent good will audiences are granting to content marketing ?” That is the fundamentally wrong path for creating sustainable innovation. That’s the old way of doing things, harking back to how we all handled the digital display marketplace. And it’s tempting to go back to the old way of doing things — namely, ignoring what the audience is asking for in favor of short-term monetary objectives — out of fear or habit.

Technology is crucial to righting the ship; when applied within a clear strategic framework, it can locate the most sophisticated of signals and provide platforms to respond to those signals — from observing how and when audiences prefer to interact with various types of content to deploying the content itself more quickly, more efficiently, and with increased personalization across devices. It has the power to transform publishers into the gatekeepers of not just premium content but the personalized navigation of the wider web itself.

At a time when 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube alone every minute that’s a function bound to grow in significance for the average consumer. If you and I trust the links we are clicking on when visiting our favorite publishers, then we should be in great shape now and into the long term future.

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