Mashable CRO Seth Rogin unveils branded content road map & calls for ban of term ‘native’ advertising

Mashable is leaning more towards brand consultation and less on traditional advertising deals, while branded content is accounting for an ever-increasing chunk of its overall revenue growth, according to chief revenue officer Seth Rogin.

Speaking to The Drum, Rogin called for the term ‘native’ advertising to be binned on the grounds that it “means too many things to too many people, and therefore confuses”, advising that companies maintain the term branded content

Mashable, which Rogin described as a “hybrid tech-media company”, has turned its focus to cultivating branded content deals, while putting increasing focus on consultation.

“We are finding we are doing very little straight forward sales and a lot more consultation. The best thing we can do is listen to what brands need and then advise them.

“Some of biggest brands in the world want to learn from us; how we are growing and doing what we do. It’s no longer the adversarial model of ‘let’s negotiate’ - agencies will bring Mashable along as a tool kit, and brands will bring us into discussions with their agencies.

“Obviously there is a financial element to everything but they see Mashable as a partner and that has led to a lot of the growth as we have been able to guide brands on how they are going to move in the next generation of social media,” he said.

Although he couldn’t reveal specific figures he said the publication's revenue was up 100 per cent year on year, 30 per cent of which had been attributed to branded content tie-ups.

Don't go in blind

Mashable has taken further steps into the programmatic trading space, having recently paired with Rubicon to sell its inventory. However, when it comes to branded content, Rogin warns against opening up inventory to open exchanges and “blind buys”.

“I’m a believer of programmatic premium, and in the private marketplace space, which has matured as a market. In 2008 when programmatic started, it was during a downturn, so you had this vast innovation at a moment of extreme panic for many legacy publishers. Therefore the rates dove down and made it unprofitable to be a quality journalist, unprofitable to operate a respectable journalistic effort – so you saw newsrooms being demolished.

“Now, in many ways the advertising industry has learned from the travel one – when programmatic started it was ‘all eyeballs are the same and I will pay five cents or whatever it was, for them’. When the travel industry went online it said ‘the Four Seasons is $1,000 a night, and the Holiday Inn $100 a night', and no-one ever said ‘hold on – all pillows are pillows’. They understood that a night at the Four Seasons is premium compared to a motel, but somehow brands weren’t able to see that and publishers were too nervous to push back.

“Now, what we have is a meeting of minds, because brands saw that quality and environment matters. And that’s why brands, advertisers and platforms together are creating this amazing new space.

He added that it would be the publishers that understood how to serve brands in the programmatic space that would be the most successful.

Mashable’s digital media tracking and viral prediction platform Velocity, created in-house, will likely form a major part of future commercial and branded content deals, according to Rogin.

The engine is designed to scour the social web, collecting people’s behavioural data around digital media, and feeding it back into the predictive engine to forecast what content will go viral.

“It’s essentially a listening tool, and it listens to more than six million sites a day, 24 hours a day, and can predict within 300 seconds after any bit of content is published whether or not that content is going to go viral. It will tell us how many shares we estimate for that piece of content, and what the timeline will be for that peak.

“Velocity is very predictive and unlike anything else other publishers have – most have something that can tell them what is trending – but our view is by the time it is trending it’s too late, because if you’re paying more to advertise on trending stories, you’re paying a tax to reach less influential readers, which makes no sense.

“Whereas if you have a predictive engine you can actually attach your marketing to stories that are on the rise, so in essence it’s always buying stocks low and selling high,” said Rogin.

Last year, Velocity picked up on Canadian airline WestJet's Christmas story, sourced from a video posted to a south-east Asian server at 2am. This saw the airline create a Christmas kiosk where it asked children who were flying from Toronto to Vancouver airport what they wanted from Santa Claus that year. It logged the requests and when they picked up their cases on landing each found their gifts attached to their luggage.

“We got an early alert on this and we thought it something fun for the holidays, not hard, breaking news but fun. We got 1.6 million shares of that page. When other US publishers suddenly recognised this was a story that was going viral they got there so late that they got a small fraction of the kind of sharing that we got.”

Its first exclusive Velocity partnership was with agency 360i, but will soon come to an end, and therefore Mashable may look to extend it to other brand partners.

“Imagine if you’re a real-time marketer, imagine if you knew eight hours before your competitor what was going to happen in viral media, and you had eight hours to come up with a better response to work on the creative, to hire a studio, to do whatever it is you need to do for your brand news room – it’s an instant competitive advantage and that’s part of the 360i partnership right now – they are incubating the system for us and are the first ones to ever test it externally.”

However, he was quick to stress that although the backbone of Velocity is automated, there is still need for human editors to oversee its output, with the Velocity team comprising a PHD in data science and a PHD in artificial intelligence.

It has also diversified its editorial since its debut in 2005, to include more than technology-focused news, but taking in more consumer-facing topics including politics, fashion and movies. "Mashable's editorial has evolved a lot and it is paying off with the advertising. We're no longer just a technology or meme site, we still have that but are now so much more.

We are reporting on the entire world though the lens of the web, it's digital culture and more. We now have a climate change editor, a travel editor and we are recruiting a lot of more editorial. About 16 months ago Mashable's advertising content was 80 per cent technology, now it’s 23 per cent and yet we’re still growing. Now we have brands like Gap and Uniqlo advertising and that's exciting."

Meanwhile international growth is also a major part of the company’s road map, having already launched a presence in Australia and revealed plans to launch in the UK this year. Its headcount was 74 employees when Rogin joined from his role as VP of advertising at the New York Times 13 months ago. Since then it has grown to 140 and is on track to make that 300 by next year as it brings on more staff to keep on track with its global expansion plans.

Other publishers including the Guardian, the Metro, and trade titles such as The Drum, have also expanded into branded content-led commercial divisions specialising in advertiser consultation.

Rogin spoke to The Drum following the IAB UK's first content conference in London.