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Editorial? Advertising? Call it “Comtent”

Today’s publishers offer a range of marketing opportunities to brands, going way beyond traditional advertising and sponsorship. Branded content — especially branded video — and native advertising (they’re not exactly the same thing) help marketers to reach an audience by presenting not just a product message, but an immersive, engaging experience which can be just as enjoyable as regular editorial content.

The revenues, of course, help the poor publishers too.

But imagine the opportunities for publishers if all and any editorial content could function as branded content — “comtent,” some might call it . In other words, let’s say that I mentioned a product in this story, as a natural part of the story. After all, we do that all the time here at DMN when discussing marketing tech platforms and solutions. Equally naturally, I add a link. But if a reader follows that link and buys the product, there’s no benefit to DMN (believe me), because there’s no attribution and no revenue sharing agreement.

Skimlinks, the London-based affiliate marketing platform, is rewriting that scene. And in doing so, it’s going beyond affiliate marketing. That’s what founder and CEO Alicia Navarro says: “What we’re talking about is content, driven by an editorial voice. It can make money, even though that’s not why it was written.” And “comtent,” of course, is Skimlinks’ term for it.

Traditionally, most of the publishers involved in affiliate marketing have been what Navarro calls “pure affiliates.” The raison d’être for their existence, and for the content they published, was to generate revenue by driving sales. And the infrastructure was complex. Publishers had to sign up with affiliate networks, train editors to create content based around links, and keep the links up-to-date, and have a system in place to collect revenues from retailers. “Mainstream publishers just didn’t bother,” Navarro explains. “It was too much effort; the reward just wasn’t in it for them.”

But according to Navarro, even pure editorial content —  not branded content or native ads — can be a content marketing channel. Here’s how.

Skimlinks sets out to make affiliate-type revenue easily available to mainstream publishers. Signing up to the Skimlinks program automatically plugs publishers into a broad affiliate network. Skimlinks adds product tracking to editorial content, and conversion generates commissions. It’s a lingering revenue stream for publishers: Navarro points out that for the top 25 publishers in the scheme, 40 percent of revenues are generated by content over 60 days old. Organic search is the publisher’s friend.

What’s more, the eco-system is monetized by brands based on product sales, not by the publishers. Skimlinks’ roster of around one and half million websites encompasses not just mainstream but major publishers — think Condé Nast, Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and The Independent — as well as a “very long tail.”

That’s only half the story. The other half is the data.

The Skimlinks eco-system aggregates what Navarro characterizes as “an immense amount of data along the whole commerce/content journey.” Skimlinks automatically tracks impressions and clicks and classifies them based on product meta-data (from a universe of something like 1.6 billion uniques per month). It’s enough data to drive meaningful insights into readers with shopping intent as opposed to casual readers: insights Skimlinks packages and sells as their Audiences product. “It turns out that we can predict [intent],” says Navarro, “and at a very granular level.”

The data is pooled, with well over 90% of domains within the eco-system opting into the co-op (representing some 80% of impressions). In practice, what opting in means for a publisher is licensing Skimlinks to sell their (anonymized) data to other members of the co-op. Why would publishers do this? Even a major publisher, says Navarro, occupies a tiny part of the Internet: “What is their audience doing elsewhere?”

In theory, readers should benefit from this infrastructure as much as publishers and brands. It creates the possibility of pre-targeting with commercially meaningful content, rather than increasingly annoying re-targeting. Traditionally, marketers have been torn between large-scale brand campaigns, leading to high exposure, but with an uncertain impact on sales; or re-targeting, which “works well and is measurable,” Navarro says, but is much smaller in scale.

“There’s a big space in between,” she concludes, where marketers can find scale and performance; a space Skimlinks’ Audiences is intended to stake out. Brands or agencies can add Audiences segments directly to their DMPs or DSPs. Publishers who opt into the co-op receive the data automatically. “It’s the future of the industry,” says Navarro. “It’s really exciting.”

Despite being head-quartered in London, most of Skimlinks’ business is here in the United States. But with customers in the UK and the rest of Europe, and some in Asia too, data privacy regulations are front-of-mind. Navarro describes Skimlinks as “actively involved” in the community discussing the future of data privacy. Her view is that it’s the responsibility of the publishing side, not the adtech side, to obtain consents for data usage, as the publisher is customer-facing. That’s the position she’s advocating for with the IAB, but it’s a developing situation.

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