Native advertising, the ad format du jour, has been an effective way for publishers to make money, ostensibly without interfering with the reader experience.
Now, publishers — including Rolling Stone, Us Weekly, and Evolve Media — are bringing that same idea to the one part of their sites they have so far neglected to monetize: their comments sections. They are the earliest adopters of the new “Sponsored Comments” ad format, which will let advertisers directly target specific verticals and readers, from Disqus, which teased the feature in December.
“With the pressures that all publishers are under to keep up with the downward pressures on CPMs, everyone’s looking for alternative monetization,” said David Denton, vp of product at Evolve Media, one of the first to use sponsored comments. “This presents new real estate further down the page that’s not intrusive and more consistent with how we want to present our site.”
The New York Times used the format as a test to advertise one of its own stories on other sites. The unobtrusive ads, which appear with a “Sponsored on Disqus” disclosure, also feature a gray background, which Disqus says is a clear sign to readers that the placements are ads. Ziploc and Maker Studios also signed on as early advertisers.
Comment sections, however, are a risky thing to advertise against. Not only do publishers not have control over what their commenters write, but comments sections are notorious for being corrosive and unpleasant. Do brands really want to advertise alongside flame wars, swear words and trolls?
“In general, the ad unit would never show next to anything like that,” explained David Fleck, general manager at Disqus. Because the ads appear above the comments sections, they literally can’t be next to anything like that. There’s a definitive break between it and the rest of the comments.”
While most publishers are monetizing their sites above the fold — with banner ads and other display units — readers actually spend more time toward the middle and bottom of the pages. What’s more, the readers who comment on stories are typically those who are most engaged with the content, which makes them more valuable to advertisers, at least in theory. It’s too early to say how readers will respond to the ads, though Disqus says early reception has been positive.
Disqus plans to sell the ads on a viewed CPM basis and split the revenue with publishers. The company wouldn’t go into detail on how it calculates the split but said it depends on the quality and size of the publisher.
Of course, that’s all premised on sponsor intrusion into the comment section being tolerated. Fleck pointed out that Disqus itself is designed to let readers vote on the relevance of comments so that the more unhelpful a comment is, the less likely that readers will see it. Still, not even the best-designed voting system will filter out all trolls, which is why Disqus also plans to algorithmically filter out bad discussions that appear next to ads. “We are building out programmatic ways to scan for those things in an effort to make brands more comfortable,” said Fleck.
These sorts of issues are ultimately why Disqus plans to scale its sponsored content slowly and with select publishers that have reasonable, positive commenter communities.
“They’re being selective about scale,” said Denton. “That maybe limits their ability to make money, but they’re dipping their toe into the water so they can make sure they do it right.”