Bradley Nickel

Online Marketing Guy | adbeat.com

17 min read

The #1 Traffic Source You’re NOT Using: Content Discovery Networks

One of your best traffic sources could be something that you’re completely ignoring, even though it’s right under your nose. Businesses always want to know where the next best traffic source is coming from, and, although that’s going to vary somewhat from field to field, one stands out as a pretty powerful traffic driver that’s overlooked.

It’s Content Discovery Networks. These are something that everyone is familiar with but many people haven’t considered using as a business tool.

Combined with the recent surge of advertisers using “Native Ads” (presell landing pages disguised as news articles/blog posts), many advertisers have begun to move away from standard ad networks (Google AdWords, Bing, Facebook, etc.) and have started allocating more ad spend to ad networks like Outbrain and Taboola.

Any time there is a massive shift in allocation… you should be paying close attention.

This post explains what Content Discovery Networks are, how they work and at the end you’ll get case studies for advertisers like Uber that are seeing success with these networks.

What Are Content Discovery Networks?

Content Discovery Networks, sometimes called Content Recommendation Engines, are ad networks that place ads in the “Around the Web” and “Recommended Stories” sections commonly found on large publishers and news sites.

The idea behind them is to serve ads that look like they’re a natural part of the page. Publishers and advertisers love them because they don’t look or feel like advertising.

They work extremely well at driving traffic and sales when they’re paired with the right landing page. Since many ads placed on Content Discovery Networks are headlines, their landing pages are commonly a “native ad” or an article lander that appears like a new story.

In addition, their CPCs and CPMs tend to be a bit lower than “premium” ad networks like Google AdWords. They also tend to have more lenient policies regarding what kinds of images and wording advertisers can use in their ad copy and landing pages.

Who Uses Content Discovery Networks?

Content Discovery Networks can work for pretty much any business in any niche. The key, as with all advertisements, is to use the right strategy and the right ad for your specific offer and business. However, there are three use cases that seem to have really cracked Content Discovery Networks as a highly effective ad platform: lead generation, SaaS software and click arbitrage.

1. Lead Generation and Direct Response

Direct response and lead generation companies use Content Discovery Networks to send traffic to VSLs, native ads and presell pages. They like these networks because they tend to be a bit cheaper and allow them to “get away” with certain ad images, copy and landing pages that might not fly on Google.

Plus, the “newsy” feel of the ads is the perfect segue to a video sales letter, presell page or advertorial, particularly if it uses the angle of a recent news story.

Some of the biggest direct response/lead generation advertisers on Content Discovery Networks include LowerMyBills.com, The Motley Fool (case study below) and nutrition/supplement companies like Force Factor.

2. B2B/B2C SaaS Software

Large SaaS advertisers like LifeLock and Salesforce use Content Discovery Networks to drive traffic to their content marketing — blog posts or whitepaper downloads that address some specific issue their prospect might be having.

If they’re also going after lead generation, they’ll litter the page with opt-in links and lead magnets in order to capture an email address. Going for the email is a more effective strategy since their products tend to have a higher price point and a longer sales cycle.

Here’s an example of an ad from Salesforce:

3. Click Arbitrage (viral news and quiz sites)

Viral news and quiz sites are far and away the biggest advertisers on Content Discovery Networks. They love native ad networks because they often offer two rates: one rate for advertisers sending traffic to sales pages (direct response) and a lower rate for advertisers sending traffic to pure content (news and quiz sites). Therefore they can buy lots of lower-priced traffic, fill their sites with ads from networks with high payouts (like Google AdSense) and make money through click arbitrage.

And again, Content Discovery Networks appear to be more lenient with what they’ll allow you to get away with on your landing pages. Many of these viral sites are optimized to make as much ad revenue as possible, meaning they’re often jam-packed with ads. While many ad networks disapprove of advertisers sending traffic to landing pages filled with ads, Content Discovery Networks don’t seem to have such strict standards.

5 Big Content Discovery Networks

There are a lot of Content Discovery Networks out there to choose from, but five of the biggest are:

  • Taboola: Some of Taboola’s advertisers include NextAdvisor, The Motley Fool (case study below) and Ancestry.com.
  • Yahoo Gemini Native: Ads on this network are shown alongside teasers for actual Yahoo news stories, meaning their appearance is slightly different than the “Recommendations” sections shown on other publishers. Some of their top advertisers include Verizon, LifestyleJournal.com and LendingTree.
  • Revcontent: Claiming to power 250 billion content recommendations per month, Revcontent bills itself as a quality-driven platform for ads.
  • Outbrain: Some of the top advertisers using Outbrain include People.com, Refinery29 and Bills.com
  • Content.ad: They claim to serve more than 30-million clicks per month. Some of Content.ad’s top advertisers include HowLifeWorks.com, Answers.com and Instant Checkmate.

How Can You Use Content Discovery Networks for Your Business?

So, now that you’re aware of the benefits of Content Discovery Networks, you’re probably wondering what it looks like to actually use one. This is where competitive intelligence comes in. The best way to design a campaign optimized for traffic from these networks is to analyze what other people have already successfully done.

In the next section you’ll find six case studies that demonstrate different ways to effectively use a Content Discovery Network. You’ll get an in-depth look at how to use Content Discovery Networks and replicate this success in your own campaigns.

Case Study: The Motley Fool — Lead Generation

The Motley Fool is a financial news publisher focused on giving investment tips/advice. They offer free and premium information and currently send traffic to pages designed to sell their premium investment newsletter/community, Stock Advisor.

Networks and Spend

While most large direct response advertisers continue to rely heavily on Google, The Motley Fool has allocated huge portions of their ad budget to Taboola and Outbrain (with Yahoo Gemini being just behind Google).

Ad Creative

Ad creatives on Content Discovery Networks are generally very simple — all you need is an eye-catching image and/or a compelling headline.

Many advertisers use images of celebrities or headlines with celebrities in them because people love them and are drawn into what they have to say. That’s why Kim Kardashian West has 59 million followers on Twitter.

One of The Motley Fool’s most seen ad used Stephen Hawking’s name to pique interest:

Stephen Hawking was perhaps the most well-known scientist of our age. Pretty much everyone knows how absolutely brilliant he was. So if he was predicting the biggest event in the history of civilization, you were probably going to want to pay attention.

Anyone interested in investing or finance will be curious because markets are largely influenced by “random” events, and if you can predict those events better than other people, you’re going to profit. (Think The Big Short.) If there was something that Hawking was predicting would be a major event that would shift the way society functioned, you would probably want to know what it was.

While we don’t necessarily recommend slapping random celebrity names all over your ads, the point is that you want to pick the juiciest, most controversial detail you can out of your company or content. When people see something that’s controversial or connected to major figures, they’re tempted to click.

Landing Pages

Here’s where things get interesting. Direct Response publishers in the finance niche often tie real-life events and people into their ad copy, even if the product itself has little to do with that specific person/event. The Motley Fool does this same exact thing on their “presell” page.

The headline builds on the curiosity started with the ad. What was Hawking’s prediction? How can I use it to my advantage? The only way for them to get this information is to opt-in.

After opting-in they’re immediately shown a video sales letter that plays more buildup. Viewers are then pitched a subscription to the “Motley Fool Stock Advisor” newsletter and community and the end of the video:

And remember: they had to opt-in to see the video, so even if they don’t buy The Motley Fool can follow up with them and send more offers.

Why This Technique Works

The Motley Fool is able to generate leads because they follow a pretty tight three-step system:

  • Pique a reader’s interest with a bold ad claim.
  • Offer the reader value (in this case, investment advice) on their landing page.
  • Force the reader to produce an email to get that value.

This works because it nags at that part of our monkey brain that really wants to know what the answer to something is once we see the question — which means becoming a lead. “What is that huge event Hawking predicts?” is the catalyst to the click and “How can it earn me money?” is the prompt for the email. Although it seems simple, we all know how well these type of clickbait-y ads can work because we are tempted by them and headlines like them every day.

Case Study: Quicken Loans — Lead Generation

Another company that’s using Content Discovery Networks is QuickenLoans. Specifically, they’re using native ad networks to advertise their services around refinancing mortgages. This is a great topic for a native ad because it’s a broad topic that can apply to a variety of people across different websites — it’s not a hyper-specific interest. If someone’s a homeowner, chances are they have a mortgage.

Networks and Spend


QuickenLoans spends a lot on Google search, but they’re also spending $7,000,000 on Outbrain and Taboola alone. Clearly, native ad networks are part of their ad strategy. Any ad budget — especially an ad budget that can accommodate millions of dollars — should be spread across channels. Lumping all your spend onto Google or Facebook is a surefire way to inject a little instability into your ad efforts.

Ad Creative

QuickenLoans has several different versions of ads on Content Discovery Networks that encourage people to rethink their mortgage. Some of them feature a person looking towards the camera. This is an easy ad to replicate and update — the picture can be swapped out for any other photo of a person, which gives this “one” ad more run for its money:
They also have text-only versions of the ad. But we like the ones with people looking straight at the reader. The bold colors of this (blue contrasting with yellow) and the confidence of this man catch the eye, even in a sea of other faces. QuickenLoans uses their short title to plant an idea in the reader’s head: rethinking their 30-year fixed-rate mortgage. This is that same enticing nugget as The Motley Fool’s Stephen Hawking claim.

Landing Pages

QuickenLoans is pretty clever about how they capture you as a lead once you click on their ads. Their landing page looks like it’s a short quiz, and they start you off by asking a few questions from dropdown menus:

The reassurance that there’s no registration or login required makes the viewer more likely to continue with the quiz. If you do, you’re plunged into several rounds of more intense series of questions that ends with a prompt for your email:


Notice how, again, they reassure the viewer that they’re trustworthy? They have those customer satisfaction awards and the “we respect your privacy” copy next to the email field. This is priming the reader to enter their email by building trust. Obviously, when a reader puts their email in, they’re being turned into a lead, so building that trust is important for QuickenLoans’ success.

Why This Technique Works

What QuickenLoans is doing well on their landing page is asking people to put effort in. If someone’s willing to spend the time to answer a couple of pages of survey questions, they’re going to want their results. Because of this, they’re likely going to put in their email — after all, they did the hard work and they want to reap the rewards.

They also build that trust throughout, from the man in the business suit to the customer service awards. This impresses upon their potential leads that QuickenLoans can be trusted with something as important as the mortgage to your house. If your company is asking for something or trying to convince someone of something high stakes, building up this early relationship is important.

Case Study: Likesharetweet — Click Arbitrage

LikeShareTweet is a viral content site that came out of nowhere in the middle of 2014. They now have millions of visitors/month. What makes them interesting to study is that they appear to offer no products or services so they likely make 100% of revenue through advertising.

In this case that means they’re likely making most if not all profit from click arbitrage fueled by traffic from Content Discovery Networks. They place their own, low-cost ad on a native ad network. Then, when someone clicks on their ad, they take them to a landing page that’s crawling with ads. When someone clicks on any ad on that page, LikeShareTweet makes more money from that click than they spent to get it.

Networks and Spend

Top network by far: Taboola.

Ad Creative

There are two types of ads that LikeShareTweet uses…

Type #1: Sex Appeal
A simple picture of an attractive woman tied into a list post — effective and not rocket science. People are drawn to attractive people and they love list posts, especially posts about celebrities and money. This ad ties everything together.

Type #2: The Weird and Bizarre

Weird and bizarre images work really well at getting click-throughs. People see them and wonder what the heck is going on? What’s the story behind that image? Is it even real? Both ads above are truly bizarre and almost impossible not to click.

Again, these are more extreme examples of good concepts. You probably can’t — and probably shouldn’t — just stick a photo of a hot guy or girl or some really strange is that photoshopped?! image on the top of your ad and call it a day. But you can think about what is eye-catching and what speaks to the lowest common denominator of your audience and use those things to build wide-reaching campaigns. Although if you have strange images, by all means, use them!

Landing Pages

LikeShareTweet is very aggressive with the number of ads they use on their landing pages. They’re using ads in a few key places we’ve seen other large viral news sites use — specifically, a bar of ads from Taboola at the top above the article and a Google AdSense ad just above the photo.

They also show pop-ups with Taboola ads:


These are pretty classic methods of gaining ad revenue but, again, LikeShareTweet is just doing a more extreme version than what we normally see.

Why This Technique Works

Part of what makes this technique work so well is playing into your audience’s hands. The ads are specifically designed around things that we know interest people — celebs, beautiful people, rich people, weird bodies — and they’re really tempting to that part of us that whispers you can take five more minutes out of work to read this! It looks crazy!

The other reason it works so well is that LikeShareTweet has their own audience nailed. The person that clicks on a LikeShareTweet article is probably going to click through to another ad article, so LikeShareTweet takes advantage of that. It’s a classic lesson in how to use your ad space: know your audience and charge a premium for others to cater to them.

Case Study: Intuit — Content Marketing

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Intuit, but you’ve no doubt heard of — or maybe even used — their suite of products. They’ve developed a couple of the biggest pieces of finance software in the past 20 years, including QuickBooks and TurboTax.

Networks and Spend

Although they still buy most traffic through Google, they also spend on Taboola and Yahoo Gemini. Although they’re not pouring millions into native ads, we’d bet that Intuit is continuously reusing other content for their ads on these networks in an extremely cost-effective manner because of their approach to landing pages.

Ad Creative

The copy of Intuit’s ads is very similar to any other non-ad article you would see at the bottom of a website or news article. It’s got an attractive header photo and a clear, simple title:

What works really well here is that they’re asking a question that a lot of people have — who counts as a dependent on my taxes, anyway? And if you had never thought of trying to claim your partner as a dependent, we bet you’re thinking about it now.

This is clearly geared to young, unmarried people — the copy and the 20-somethings in the photo make that clear. And young people, who might not have an accountant and are probably not tax experts, are a great target for this ad, this question and TurboTax software. We’d bet that this is a play straight out of Intuit’s buyer persona playbook.

Landing Pages

The landing pages that Intuit uses for these sorts of ads are blog posts. This particular ad takes you to exactly what you’d expect: a post that answers the question they posed.


That’s one reason we suspect it’s so easy for Intuit to make these ads. They’re already writing the blog posts, they already have this content in the world and now they’re marketing themselves with it using ads on Content Discovery Networks. If you have a blog filled with articles that are genuinely helpful to your userbase, this can be a cheap and easy approach to getting some traffic — or maybe even leads.

Although this is definitely a content marketing-based ad for TurboTax, they also have a “Start for Free” button and a “Subscribe Now” field for their email list. If someone enjoyed this article, especially if they learned something about their taxes from it, they might turn into a lead by signing up for more.

Why This Technique Works

Intuit’s content marketing ads work for two main reasons. The first is cost, as we just discussed. If you’re a company with a good cache of online content, repurposing that at a low cost using native ad networks can be a great option. Of course, TurboTax is software that has a huge potential userbase. So the key here is to pick articles that are broadly applicable. Save the hypertargeting for social ads.

The other reason it works is that they’ve really nailed their audience in the ad. The young interracial couple, the question that piques an inexperienced tax filer’s interest and the sunny Instagram vibes of the photo are all great ways to target a millennial audience. We’d guess this ad would be much less successful if it were targeted to retirees.

Case Study: Babbel — Generate Signups

Babbel is a language-learning program that has some stiff competition. Alright, we’ll say it, it’s Duolingo. When competing with such a well-known company, you’ve got to use every trick in the book to capture attention. Besides the heavy hitters like Duolingo and paid counterpart Rosetta Stone, there is a ton of language software out there to compete with. Let’s see how Babbel uses Content Discovery Networks to their advantage.

Networks and Spend


Obviously, Babbel is using Content Discovery Networks to fuel their growth. They’ve got almost no money in Google and more than 15 million between Taboola and Outbrain. This is pretty consistent over time, and they’ve increased spend in the last few months, pushing even more heavily into the native ad market.

Ad Creative

Babbel has a pretty eye-catching ad, using some techniques we’ve seen before. They use a face looking right at the camera and a high-contrast background, which is a good strategy for gaining attention. But they painted the face in the colors of the Spanish flag, immediately signaling something to do with Spain or Spanish.

Their copy, “This App Can Teach You Spanish In Just 3 Weeks,” sounds a little clickbait-y, but it speaks to a direct frustration of all language users: the time it takes to learn a new tongue. The claim is a little unbelievable, but not so outlandish that it seems outright false. This is the perfect balance to get people to click away.

Landing Pages

Turns out, the claim isn’t false — at least according to Babbel’s landing page. This is a great example of how to get people to sign up for your product. At the top, and on the side, they have different flags that signal what languages you can learn, giving you intuitive information about the product’s value.


Then, they give you a scientific study that proves their product works. If that didn’t convince you, you can click on a BuzzFeed-style video challenge where different people are learning Spanish in three weeks:

The video is enticing to click on and delivers in entertainment value. You can see what seems like people “instantly” learning Spanish — just like you could with Babbel’s app. Then, at the end there’s a signup button:
That leads directly to a page of languages you can learn and, from there, to your first lesson. At the end, they ask for your email.

Why This Technique Works

This technique works because their landing page is so convincing. Anyone who had an interest in quickly learning a language would be immediately sucked in by Babbel’s language offerings, their fun video and their scientific studies that prove their products worked.

Plus, getting people started on a lesson before requiring signup is a great way to ensure that they’re invested in the app and want to continue. This means people are signing up as users, not as leads. If you’ve got a product with a free trial or demo, you should absolutely link that in your landing page to get people invested in your product, rather than taking them straight to pricing or signup.

Case Study: Uber — Geotargeting

One thing we haven’t really seen in our Content Discovery Networks yet is geotargeting. We had interest and age targeting in our ads, but Uber is using native ads to focus on specific metro regions. This makes sense for their product and for their ad spend.

Networks and Spend


Uber is really going in on Yahoo Gemini Native in their ad spend. They’re spending nearly double what they spend on Google! They’ve also got a good chunk of change in Outbrain as well. Clearly, native ads are part of their long-term strategy.

Ad Creative

One ad that Uber has recently been running is targeting the Austin metro region. It’s a limited-time offer geared towards getting new drivers:


Uber doesn’t need to build trust with a consumer because a lot of people already know who they are. This is why such a simple ad is effective. They make a promise: at least $1600 for your first 200 trips as a driver. And that’s it. But for someone sitting at their computer thinking about driving for Uber, this seems pretty good. Say they average 20 trips a day for 10 days. That’s $1600 for two normal work weeks, which is $3200 a month — and that’s a pretty good paycheck.

Landing Pages

Their landing page is perhaps the simplest of all the case studies we’ve been over today. It’s a simple signup form with a cheery picture of a driver.


This is appropriate for the ad because it’s an employment offer. When people are clicking, they’re expecting something serious and professional. And if they want to sign up, view the terms and get driving, then they’ve got to put in their information.

Why This Technique Works

Uber has three main things happening here:

  • Geotargeting works because this ad is providing a specific offer to a specific set of users. This can lower ad spend and make ads more effective.
  • Concrete numbers help the ad come alive. It’s a company guarantee, so they’re free to put the numbers in, but if you don’t have some sort of guarantee, any solid numbers on how your product or service helps people earn money or achieve their goals is good to put in.
  • Professional landing page signals that Uber is serious and legitimizes the ad as an offer of employment.

Even if you aren’t posting job ads on a Content Discovery Network, you can still take each of these lessons back to your own ads, especially if you are a professional product or service.

Don’t Sleep on Content Discovery Networks

Over the past year or two there has been significant traffic growth on Content Discovery Networks. My feeling is that we’re just seeing the beginning of a whole new brand of advertising. Anyone who is looking for another great traffic source should really consider testing out a few campaigns on these networks.

Bradley Nickel

Online Marketing Guy | adbeat.com

14 Comments

  1. Great article – I would like to know where do you obtain the top networks data, shown in each of the case studies? is this an Adbeat feature?

    Reply
  2. Do these platforms offer targeting?

    Reply
    • Hey Boris,

      Excellent question.

      Short answer: It depends on which kind of targeting you’re talking about and on which network.

      Example: Outbrain only allows you to geo-target. They do not allow you to choose which publishers your content appears on. They let their algorithm match up your content based on the specific user, content of the article and the publisher being browsed. That being said, they do allow you to *exclude* certain publishers if they’re not performing well.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  3. That was great. I always thought that these traffic sourcse that are not much known to public, work much better that famous ones. I use google adsense but it’s getting annoying when people actually can see the ad logo atthe corner and it looks like an ad. The CTR is decreasing. But these new sources look great.
    Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  4. For arbitrage (like the likesharetweet case), do you have an idea how much the publishers are paying cpc for CDNs like outbrain, taboola, etc?

    Reply
    • Hey Chris,

      CPCs depend on a variety of factors (publisher, offer, clickthrough rate, etc.) but you’re looking at anywhere from $0.25 to $2.00 with these networks.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  5. Thanks for the great article, I run a health supplement business, which one would you recommend for me, i.e. which one does not explicitly say (like Outbrain does) that supplements are not allowed?

    Reply
    • Hey Lee,

      I’d try rev:content, Taboola and ContentAd.

      I’ve seen nutraceutical advertisers running ads on those networks in the past.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Brad

      Reply
  6. I personally wouldn’t use celebrities or other people’s ‘brands’ to endorse whatever i’m selling. It is grounds for a lawsuit. e.g. Michael Jordan suing someone even though their ad flopped lol. Native advertising works better on social media (facebook/youtube video ads) than a lot of the other sites as the targeting is better. I’m sure more advertisers will turn to native advertising down the road but most people will also click on the ads less since they are tired of seeing the sales pages.

    Reply
  7. Stay away from Yahoo Gemini, at least for now. We have had massive amounts of click fraud over the past few months. Yahoo purchased a company called BrightRoll to take over the ads, since then, the problems started. Stay Away.

    Reply
  8. Good article. Have you seen affiliates using these platforms with success. Since for example you say that targeting is not possible for Outbrain except for Geo, it would seem you would have to go into some serious budget before you could get any meaningful data or ROI metrics. Your thoughts on affiliates?

    Reply
  9. I run a web development agency for ecommerce stores, what CDN do you recommend? And what options do I have for targeting (of any kind)?

    Thanks

    Reply
  10. Super article. We have a life insurance blog and are looking for ways to drive traffic to our site with lower cpc costs. Very interesting. We will take a close look at your ideas. Thanks.

    Reply

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