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AMAs

Howdy - I’m Todd Sawicki, CEO of Zemanta - a startup that makes software to automate the promotion and distribution of content thru native ads.  What that means is that we help marketers, agencies and really anyone figure out how to buy native ads to drive traffic to their content.  We’ve bought from just about everyone in the emerging native ad ecosystem and so we know what’s working and what’s not.  

Prior to Zemanta, I was the CRO for Cheezburger (as in the publisher of ICanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.org) where thanks to rise of native ads I was able to turn silly cat photo’s into a 10-figure a year business.  So yeah you can partly blame me for all the silly cat pics your grandma emails you.  But the important thing is I was one of the folks who popularized native ads and sponsored content and I think I was one of the first people to get quoted using the term sponsored content on Digiday.

I’ve been doing startups in and around digital media, publishing and adtech for a long time and I know wayyyy more about the Lumascape then any rational human being should.  So besides also being the guy who literally wrote Zynga their first check as the founder of one of the first social based ad startups (Lookery), I know about this paid marketing system we’ve all built and been using online.

You can follow me on Twitter: @sawickipedia

I will be live on August 4 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which I will answer as many questions as possible.

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd, great to have you here. Can you talk about how should a company decide about using native ads vs. other paid media such as paid social, Google etc ? What's the benefit and what are some tips you can share to get best ROI from native ads?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Online advertising has been dominated by last click channels - paid search, display retargeting, etc. Which makes sense since the reason that dollars started flowing into digital from traditional channels was that you could track conversions. If you think of the classic marketing funnel - awareness -> interest -> intent -> purchase - traditional channels have owned awareness and interest, while digital has owned intent and purchase. Content marketing comes along and it really is the way for online marketers to generate awareness and interest - ie when the direct purchase isn’t the goal. The problem is that promoting content in last click channels was too expensive. Native ads now solve that are really the right channel to build awareness and interest. Native ads promote content which means they promote driving someone to consume content to establish awareness and interest. The best way to generate ROI from native then is to use native as part of a full funnel marketing plan and understand where it fits in the funnel - it's the channel that gets you the clicks/traffic that then gets you the visits/conversions.

      • HQ

        Hila Qu

        over 3 years ago #

        Thanks very much, very useful overview for someone who is not so familiar with the space. Given what you described, what is the best target demographic to use native ads to reach? Is the segment by age, or by industry, or other criteria?

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @hila_qu Native ads can be used to reach really any demographic - it's easier today for b2c then b2b, but both can work with the right content.

        The other thing about native advertising is that it starts with the content but the native ad doesn't literally need to be the content in a repurposed form. Think of a native ad as the trailer/the teaser for the content - just like movie trailers aren't a literal version of the move - native ads don't have to be the literal version of the content they are representing. You can play w/ headlines and descriptions as a way to drive clicks and treat your native ad creative as representing the idea behind the content but don't feel the need to be so literal. Play with/ test different creatives like you would with any ad creative.

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    over 3 years ago #

    Hey Todd - stoked to have you on!

    A few years ago I saw many blogs participating in the Zemanta Tech Circle and now that concept seems to have vanished.
    What happened and why?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Sadly it just wasn't popular enough.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        Publishers I think don't realize there is a collective of publishers as much as you would think. They are not alone, but they act as if they are.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        over 3 years ago #

        That's really surprising given the big name blogs that were associated with it/pushing it. Why do you think the concept didn't take off?

  • AA

    Aldin A

    over 3 years ago #

    Hey Todd,

    Great to have you here at GH!

    1)What is your process for figuring out what channels you should focus on for customer acquisition? How do you evaluate them? How do you come up with a plan of action to attack that marketing channel? Do you have a process for evaluating channels, if so could you share said process?

    2)How do you think about scaling traffic growth? What changes for how you use a channel from when you first identify it's viability,
    to using the traffic channel at scale? What question do you ask yourself to make sure that the channels stays viable as you scale it up?
    What are the pitfalls to avoid as you scale a channel? How do you overcome said pitfalls? Do you have a process for scaling channels, could you share said process?

    3)Can you name some resource you use to learn about growth and business in general? Books, podcasts, blogs etc?

    Thanks

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      1) Back in the day when I was trying to figure out channel, by channel and there just wasn't the wealth of knowledge readily available - it was test everything, test small, track maniacally, and scale based on results. Today platforms (including our own for native ads), allow you to automate the testing/scaling of channels at scale in ways I could have only have dreamed of back in the day.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @anujadhiya our platform (like everyone these days) can track conversions via pixels but the more and more we are finding marketers don't want to add any more pixels so instead we also now support tracking conversions via your base web analytics platform aka GA or Omniture. So we pull the conversion event data right from there and I would recommend most marketers start centralizing their conversion data in those platforms and not leave it balkanized in 50 different vendors systems,

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        over 3 years ago #

        What tools are part of Zemanta's conversion/analytics stack now? And what system do you'll use nowadays to track your tests, results etc?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      2) I am going to focus on paid traffic acquisition - the key here is often quantity vs quality. Make sure you understand quality. We have a customer who I think framed it the best - you are looking for "Paid Organic" meaning the traffic should be within a quantitative frame of reference from your organic - so say 80% in terms of engagement (time on site, pv/visit, etc.)

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      3) Growthhackers.com, Inbound.org are great resources, but also the vendors and their case studies are probably also super helpful. One thing when I read forums and sites is that most of the advice seems to be around how do you spend say $25k or less a month. Not how do you spend $1M/mo (I managed a multi-million dollar monthly paid acquisition budget back in the day). That advice is often hidden and requires attending events as a marketer like the iMedia brand summit or the digiday brand summit where you can network with peers who are making similar media investments.

  • SA

    Shaker A

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for doing this AMA!

    1)There are a million things you could be working on growth at any one time. Can you talk about your process for
    figuring out the MOST important thing you have work on RIGHT for growth? How do you make and prioritize your growth road map?

    2)Can you talk about some of the challenges of scaling the business and how you've overcome them?

    3)How do you think about retention and increasing retention? How do you think about engagement and increasing engagement?

    Thanks

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      1) I have seem so many customers come to me at Zemanta who start spending money before they understand the "micro" growth process. And thus fail. Throwing money at something doesn't mean it will grow. The most important thing is to make sure you have your base growth unit (think economic unit) figured out - meaning have you identified the series of user behaviors that will lead to growth on a micro level. Once you have identified that then it's about how do you find channels that will pour users into those growth behaviors. It seems obvious but the amount of folks who start promoting something without having the unit behavior dialed in is shocking.

      • HQ

        Hila Qu

        over 3 years ago #

        Todd, totally agree. Can you talk a little bit more about how you can pour users into growth behavior via identifying the right channels? Also I would assume on boarding & activation design play an important role in there.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @hila_qu To identify the right behavior you don't need to know anything about a channel. That happens pre-channel. The key is you should know whether if someone reads an article, then that they either come back and purchase or click a link at the bottom of the page and sign up, etc. Once that is figured out then it's figuring out which channels (thru research and testing) drive users that will mimic/repeat those behaviors. Usually there are case studies that will look like your type of behavior being driven and that's a great way to find/test channels. As folks like to say though - prior success by someone else doesn't guarantee a channel will work for you in the future.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @anujadhiya for us - the key was figuring out the types of campaigns that worked well within our platform and the native ad ecosystem. Some tactics are just not meant for native.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        over 3 years ago #

        Curious to hear what the series of user behaviors are that have lead to Zemanta's growth

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      2) The biggest challenge of scaling isn't so much scaling - it's that once scaled often doesn't scale consistently forever. Channels and tactics are like fads - they wear out over time. So as a marketer the key is to stay vigilant and realize you will constantly be needing to identify new channels and tactics to maintain scale.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @anujadhiya "you know it when you see it" - it's really the numbers start declining - it's not rocket science. But the one bit of advice, when a channel starts declining it rarely comes back to its former glory.

        One of the things about the Zemanta platform is that was built with this testing, swapping, moving around in mind. We call it Zemanta One (yes in an intentional geeky reference to LOTR and one ring to rule them all) in that it is intended to be the one dashboard/platform to rule then entire native ecosystem. We have built the tool to allow you to test across 30+ native channels at once. I would have died and gone to heaven had this existed for display 10 years ago. Manually testing channel after channel is for the birds today.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        over 3 years ago #

        Is there a framework you've used to prioritize what channels you might try first when you see some channel beginning to fade?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      3) Now this answer will come from my biased POV - but the key to retention and engagement is realizing you are in a relationship with your users/customers. And perhaps the best way to maintain that relationship is through content and conversation. Content is a great way to engage your audience/customers when they are not ready to buy and just want to listen and learn. The best way to maintain the active relationship is being responsive when people raise their hands and want to chat (not literally in a chat window or bot) but understand that content is an asynchronous platform and that other platforms - social, email, etc. - are more synchronous.

  • RB

    Ry B

    over 3 years ago #

    Hey Todd, Great to have you here!

    1)How do you retain your users, if your user only need to use your app occasionally by nature (ex shopping app)? If your app isn't used frequently. building up the habit is hard, which makes it even harder to retain the user. How do you go about trying to stay top of mind so when the user has a need that your app solves they think of you?

    2)What are the things early stage startups can focus on to increase there survival rates? What are things you see startups screwing up that they can't afford too, and how you fix them?

    3)What's the best advice you've ever received? What's the most valuable thing you learned the hard way?

    Thanks for doing AMA.

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      1) I got into the native ads/content promotion space because as a marketer I felt that content was and is the best way to retain your users. Publishing content is (no pun intended) the most native thing you can do online - the web is the world's best/easiest/broadest publishing platform ever invented. And what content does is provide a reason for your users to engage with you in ways beyond direct use/purchase. Staying top of mind is really about establishing yourself as a brand as the authority on a topic for a user. Nike = athletic performance, Disney = family fun... so whenever I start thinking about those topics, I think of those brands. That's how you stay top of mind.

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      2) Startups often screw up when it's time to market. Until you have something that is working at a micro level, then there is no reason to market it. Marketing, to me at least, is how scale something that is working at a small level and connect to the masses of folks who might have/benefit from that thing. So often startups start marketing before they understand what it is there thing is.

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      3) I ask people I interview for jobs - what's the lesson you will take from your last job to your next job - things that worked, things that didn't, etc? My personal answer is don't assume your assumptions are facts or right. Make sure you prove your assumptions - as fast and cheaply as possible - because if your assumptions are wrong - then whoa boy you are in a world of hurt until you realize that and take corrective action.

  • LC

    Liz Cozzaglio

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd, Thanks for doing this AMA!

    What advice would you give a startup that’s pre P/M fit about paid marketing? Would you recommend it under any circumstance? If yes, what budgets, platforms, channels etc should they consider first? If not, what’s the best time to consider exploring paid marketing channels as an avenue for growth?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Pre P/M fit? Spend very, very little. Sometimes you need to spend to acquire some potential customers so you can determine P/M fit but otherwise paid marketing (at scale) is a post P/M fit activity. So ok to spend to get enough users to test P/M fit but other then that save your money!

  • AS

    Alex Sherstinsky

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd! Thank you for doing an AMA with us.

    In an interview last year you said that it was very difficult to get actionable data to judge or optimize a native advertising campaign. How much progress do you think has been made towards those goals? What challenges still remain towards being able to demonstrate ROI of such campaigns?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Thanks for reading an interview of mine! (Someone paid attention - wOOt!) But seriously - a TON of progress has been made over the last year with how native advertising campaigns are being measured optimized. To my earlier comment - marketers more and more are realizing that native advertising (aka content promotion) is a top of funnel activity and therefore more traditional web metrics (aka online engagement visits/time on site/etc) are appropriate and do in fact ultimately drive awareness and interest (if the content is good). Also multi-touch attribution is getting better and better everyday so the idea that there is a click that drives the click that drives the conversion is much better understood. Also our own platform now directly integrates with GA and Omniture and can directly (and automatically) optimize off of that data which makes a world of difference.

      • TS

        Todd Sawicki

        over 3 years ago #

        @anujadhiya at Zemanta, we firmly believe, there is no one universal funnel for a company or product. That the reality is users will create their own paths in a bit of choose your own adventure way. So we have designed our platform with that fuzziness in mind. For instance, we have built algorithms that estimate what you are most likely going to click on next based on what you have clicked on previously. The key is that on a macro level you start to see buckets of behaviors - for instance users tend to start with a general topic, light article, then move into a more in depth weighty, informative piece, then the product full dive piece and then convert. But the key there is that I just described buckets which means you'll need content, and multiple pieces, within each that you believe (or eventually know) will appeal to different users.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        over 3 years ago #

        I still feel that there's a degree of fuzziness with assigning weightage to the various touch points in a funnel.
        How do you determine which touch means more than others (when it's not obvious)?
        Also just because a funnel is represented linearly doesnt mean users behave that way. They may go up and down a few times before converting. So how does that play into determining attribution?

  • TS

    Todd Sawicki

    over 3 years ago #

    As we wrap up the AMA, one comment I would like to make - we are still in the early days of native much like the early days of search ('04-08) and display ('06-'11) when the channels and ad rates were not saturated. The marketers who figure out native now will have such an advantage over those who come later. Beachheads will be established as marketers take advantage of CPCs they will not see again. Last year US quality CPCs were 10-15 cents, this year more like 15-25 cents. So there are opportunities to take advantage of the space and learn the lessons before someone else shows up. It's cool to see a new sector emerge and have the opportunity to see which marketers that advantage.

  • MM

    martín medina

    over 3 years ago #

    Todd,

    Great to have you here doing this AMA, super stoked for this one!

    I’m a huge fan of Failblog and have been following the site and Cheezburger for years. How did you guys get started using sponsored content to monetize the site and is there anything you would have done differently regarding monetization?

    What are some new developments in advertising that are most exciting for you? Where do you see the future of the industry?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Thanks for being a fan! I think the biggest thing is that we were a bit too early - the sponsored content studio model that many publishers are executing was the right idea but no one (including myself) really knew what that was supposed to look like 5-6 years ago. Also banners are dead on mobile and jumping in even harder to native ads/sponsored content would have been better.

  • ES

    Edward Stephens

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd,

    Awesome to have you on can't wait to hear your answers.

    My main questions are:

    1) What do you think of VR/AR and how exciting do you think the application of advertising could be/will be to this industry (if you think VR will form a meaningful industry that is)?

    2) What do you think of what appears to be the emerging battle between Instagram and Snapchat and their ability to deliver ads to their respective user bases?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      1. My friend @rafer (find him on twitter) is deep down the rabbit hold of VR/AR as is my friend @lasslaby (on the agency side) - they have much better takes on what's happening

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      2. SC actually proves the potential of AR ad models because the sponsored geo-filter is really the first native AR ad that I think works, works at scale and is super well received by users. NB: native content ads are a subset of native ads overall as there are many native ads which don't promote content.

  • JF

    Javier Feldman

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd! Thanks for being here today!

    The ContentMarketing /Native LumaScape is just mind boggling. If I was clueless before, I’m just plain confused now.
    I have no clue when I’d pick any given service/tool within one of the larger buckets (e.g. content creation, content inventory creation etc) and how each of those buckets relate to each other (e.g. if I pick a content creation service or tool, do I also need a Content Inventory Creation tool/service or not?)

    Are there any resources available that could guide someone dipping their toes into this world of paid marketing to navigate it with more surety so you’re using the right tool/service/platform/channel etc at the right time?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      The Lumascape is scary for sure. So step 1 realizing you are not alone in being overwhelmed is a great first step. Also take comfort in that you will never now what everyone of those logos does and it's ok if you don't. There's an element of FOMO at play but what's important is to find one or two vendors who like/trust and can learn from in a bucket or two on that chart.

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      In terms of resources - do not hesitate to ask for specific recommendations from colleagues on forums like this and more importantly vendors in adjacent spaces. Asking me as the maker of a platform that automates the promotion and distribution of content for marketers means I know a lot about content creation vendors because I work with a lot of them. Vendors are a much underutilized resource for references/referrals.

  • DO

    Danielle Olivas

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd,

    Nice to have you here! In your bio you mentioned, "we know what’s working and what’s not" in the native ad ecosystem. Can you elaborate more on this and trends you see?

    Thanks!

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Our platform is wired into just about every native ad platform online - we support essentially any native ad format and reach just about any publisher who supports native ads. So we've seen just about every type of combination of campaign type, budget, campaign goal, content type, marketer, org that has dabbled and working in native.

      So here's what we are seeing:
      - Native is best when used as a top of funnel channel to drive awareness and interest by getting people to visit/engage with your content
      - Native is about driving the click that drives the click - we have a number of marketers with both very basic to extremely advanced display retargeting campaigns - but those only work when people visit your site. So how do you get traffic efficiently? Via paid native advertising
      - Native is not a CPA channel to compete w/ display retargeting or search. Content works best as a content - a platform to develop a relationship with a potential customer not be the thing that drives the purchase from that page
      - Native is a very cost effective way to drive audience and content insights. Instead of pre-targeting native ads like you do display (age/gender/interest) your content should be the filter meaning let it drive the clicks that it drives and then do post click analysis on who that audience is. We have built our own platform to do this where we do post click lookups of a user's demo/interest information and use that to help inform our customers on who their messaging/content is really driving (often different then what they pre-supposed). Then use that insight to drive downstream marketing decisions.

  • TG

    Tony Griego

    over 3 years ago #

    Hey Todd,

    Which platforms are you looking at in the next year or so that you think have the most potential advantage? Are you looking into any VR applications at the moment?

    Thanks,
    Tony

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      For scale - native. For experimenting - VR/AR. Native is entering year 5 - there is real scale available and the vendors on both sides (demand like us, supply, etc) to allow marketers to build a real channel that works. VR/AR will be that in 5 years. Experiment along the way but no it's no a real channel yet.

  • LC

    Liz Cozzaglio

    over 3 years ago #

    What is it about cats? Why do you think silly pix of cats incite a a certain kind of emotion that other animals don’t? Is it just your typical first mover advantage or something else?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      Ben Huh talked about it a lot - yes cat faces seem to express emotion in ways dogs don't. For whatever reason they are great for helping tell jokes. That's really it. As they say, if the content's good, then it will work.

  • TS

    Todd Sawicki

    over 3 years ago #

    Unfortunately - my time's up. I wanted to thanks everyone (especially @anujadhiya for organizing). I'm around the interwebs so if I can help answer any questions or followups - don't hesitate to track me down!

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    over 3 years ago #

    One more:
    I saw the infographic for the Native Adscape and it was eye opening - native ads are everywhere and all the big guns are publishing them: https://s.aolcdn.com/dims-global/dims3/GLOB/resize/1344x557/quality/80/https://tctechcrunch2011.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/nativeadscape1.jpg

    What challenges (or concerns) do you think face publishes like BuzzFeed where native ads are their bread and butter and there is so much competition in the space?

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      We use the term at Zemanta - publishers as agencies. Publishers are effectively morphing into creative agencies for native content ads. The reality is that running an ad agency is hard and a different business then publishing (one of the reasons Cheezburger wasn't so successful as a sponsored content agency). Many pubs will fail at creating a creative agency.

  • DB

    Daeshawn Ballard

    about 3 years ago #

    No question. I just want to thank you for doing this, you've enlightened me on several key topics.

  • AE

    ACE Egan

    5 months ago #

    Your company are with respect scum, you cause distress and headaches and attempting to contact you through an s mIl, remove details your comapnY have atolen
    And use without authority.

    You
    Need to look at the misery you cause people

    I want my details removed from you low life company.

    How would you
    Feel if I harassed you
    And use d my physical strength in the same manner your company uses there manipulative ways.

    Making the “contact” for the site on the phone impossible clearly shows what your about

  • JP

    John Phamvan

    over 3 years ago #

    Hi Todd! Thanks for doing this AMA. You made the transition from a direct to consumer site to a B2C startup. What are some aspects of the business or characteristics of the product that changed when your customer changed to companies and not folks on the Internet? Any surprises?

    Thanks,
    John

    • TS

      Todd Sawicki

      over 3 years ago #

      I've done a lot in my career - both b2b and b2c. So the latest move from Cheezburger to Zemanta wasn't that big of a shift. I think the biggest thing right now on the b2b side is the shift to Predictable Revenue sales models and the rise of Account Based Marketing (ABM). Those two movements are really fundamentally changing go to market approaches in very significant ways.

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