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Outbrain fails the ASA test for promoted content advertising – Marketers start to worry

The marketing and advertising industry is this morning scratching their heads as Outbrain, the people who power those odd looking adverts underneath mainstream news stories on every popular news site, got the ASA treatment.

The anonymous complaint seems to be that the content being promoted by the likes of Outbrain is not clearly labelled as an advert. Outbrain, whilst being willing to comply with making any changes, make a stern defence of their product.

Outbrain made it clear that they felt it was not advertising in the traditional sense, largely because they were displaying content that was based on what the user had previously consumed. They also considered the stories to be “promoted stories” or “promoted content”. Some of the world’s largest news outlets will be looking on at this with concern given a large number now use Outbrain as a revenue stream, or the similar service provided by Taboola. The likes of Reuters, Fast Company, Cosmo, Rolling Stone and NBC News are all happy to be on the Outbrain site as customers.

The below screen grab shows Outbrain in action, in this instance on the FastCompany.com website.


outbrain on fast company

outbrain on fast company



The very small question mark in square brackets “[?]” is the identifier that Outbrain uses to explain to users, once they click it, that they are providing the content recommendation. Many in the industry have long felt that this is not really a comprehensive way of explaining that this content is not actually being provided by the website they are currently browsing.

The below image shows how Taboola displays its content in a very similar way to Outbrain, in this instance, the screen grab is taken from the Daily Mail. You will see that Taboola has a far larger explanation that the content shown is “sponsored content”, something that far more consumers would understand.


Taboola Sponsored Content

Taboola Sponsored Content



The ASA acknowledged that Outbrain was willing to comply but made it clear that it felt they were ads. The formal ruling on the ASA site said that it “noted that marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such and considered the text ‘You may also like these’ and ‘Recommended by’, as well as the information provided in the pop up and in the link below the ad, was not sufficient to ensure it was obvious to consumers that the ad was a marketing communication. Because the ad was not obviously identifiable as marketing communication, we concluded that it was misleading”.

Marketeers will now be wondering about the ramifications as a large number or organisations use the likes of Taboola or Outbrain to drive traffic to their sites. The rise in their popularity comes on the back of brands moving to have far more focus on content marketing and then trying to find ways to promote this content.

Some brands even use it as an effective way to drive the likes of newsletter sign-ups by optimising the landing page being linked to from Outbrain or Taboola in order to encourage the site visitor to sign up for more information and promises of similar popular content being send to their inbox.

The anonymous complaint has now been upheld, meaning that changes need to be made and this will now surely mean that the likes of Outbrain and the similar service provider Taboola will be frantically considering their options which seem to be making immediate changes or starting a legal challenge.

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Written by Andy Barr

A PR and Marketing waffler of the highest degree. Andy has worked in the media for over 15 years and speaks around the world on digital media campaigns. Always on the look out for lol'fest stories.

  • http://about.me/andrewgirdwood Andrew Girdwood

    Bad news for traffic exchanges too.

  • http://blog.pushon.co.uk Psychobel

    I suspect they will simply put some bigger text at the bottom of the ads. Which noone will read because they’ll be drawn in by the pictures of celebs in bikinis.

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