Paying for traffic: the end of the last taboo?

Evolve Media used to pay for it, but it no longer does. BuzzFeed says it rarely does. Time and the Huffington Post claim they don’t. Yet to hear some talk, it’s a more common practice than some publishers might admit. Even The New York Times (gasp) does it.

We’re talking about paying for editorial promotion on Facebook, of course.

Jon Bond once said, “Marketing in the future is like sex. Only the losers will have to pay for it.” Bond was talking about earned media like public relations and social media replacing traditional advertising. But the thinking could apply to editorial content, too. If your content is good enough, it should find an audience on its own, and you shouldn’t have to pay to promote it.

That attitude may be fading, but it’s still around. The problem is, like it or not, some publishers get as much as half their traffic from Facebook. Yet Facebook’s constant algorithm changes mean publishers have to scramble to keep up. Some have upped their posting frequency, to dozens a day, with enviable results. Yet when you ask if they’re paying to augment that reach, there’s little enthusiasm to open up about the practice.

This is nothing new in the sense that publishers have always paid to assemble an audience. A short history: Before there was the Web, publications paid to market print subscriptions. Then came the Internet, and they paid for search-engine marketing and bought traffic from portals. Ad agencies started to reward those with the most scale, which fed into the practice.

Search and portals were expensive, though. Around 2006, content marketing widgets like Outbrain and Taboola started to appear, giving publishers a way to cheaply recirculate their content on their own websites or pay to have the content distributed on other sites.

These audience-extension tactics are basically legit — until they fail to meet the audience advertisers are buying. Pre-Internet, this took the form of sketchy circulation sales tactics, like Publishers Clearing House schemes that preyed on the gullible. Online, there’s the buying of undesirable traffic to fulfill commitments to advertisers, or, worse, non-human or bot traffic. “When it gets dicey is when someone buys traffic that is not necessarily in keeping with what they sold their customer,” said Jim Spanfeller, founder of Spanfeller Media Group. “Then, you’re basically paying a bait-and-switch game.”

Today, the rise of social media has made publishers more dependent on Facebook to reach an audience. The need for publishers to understand social has led their newsrooms to adopt business-side expertise.

Yet because of the taint of certain traffic practices, or the perceived purity of editorial, there’s still a stigma attached to paying to promote editorial content on Facebook. This is true, even as publishers will devote armies of editorial staffers and data scientists to figuring out what kind of stories and headlines will take off on the platform, then serving it up.

“It’s still around,” said Todd Sawicki, CEO of Zemanta, a firm that amplifies content ads. “The reality is, buying traffic is not a dirty thing. We’ve got this idea that, ‘we’re good enough that I don’t need to pay for traffic.’ There’s this perceived element of shame when there shouldn’t be. We assume organic is this beautiful and wonderful thing. The reality is, almost all traffic has come from third parties.” Publishers have never gotten more than 30 percent of their traffic coming directly to their sites, he added.

Cost is another big reason publishers don’t do more paid editorial promotion on Facebook. The return on a promoted post is unpredictable (it’s almost impossible to know what will make a story go viral), which makes it hard to arbitrage.

“Buying traffic isn’t so much a taboo as it is a poor business decision for most publishers in most instances,” said Bryan Goldberg, the founder of Bustle and Bleacher Report. “It’s expensive, and the money could usually be better invested in editors who reach an organic audience.”

At Evolve, said CRO Geoff Schiller, the company dabbled in paid social but is now focusing on organic growth by hiring established editors to hone its content and by using its homegrown content-amplification technology, Crowd Ignite.

“We’ve tested it against our own content-distribution solution that we don’t have to pay for, and the return is much stronger,” Schiller said. “And we have really smart people who are carving out social.”

There are times when paid promotion makes sense. Some do paid promotion on posts that have particularly high engagement already, with the idea that they can capitalize on it to reach a new audience. Goldberg is one publisher that’s used Facebook in this way. “When an article is already going viral organically on a platform like Facebook, some well-timed promotion can help extend its shelf life and expose it to more highly interested readers,” he said.

The New Republic will put $50 behind a story to grow its audience, but the cost prohibits it from doing this every day, said Noah Chestnut, who as director of New Republic Labs works on audience development.

Cost aside, though, Chestnut doesn’t think publishers should shy away from using what Facebook has to offer. Facebook has become a newsstand for individual articles. And, as with traditional newsstands, publishers can pay for more prominent placement.

“There are tools; we should use them,” he said. “There are certainly publishers who get flack because they depend heavily on Facebook. Is it a dirty secret? I don’t know; I guess part of it could be, you don’t want to admit your current fan base isn’t enough.”