Introducing Outbrain & Taboola

For paid media, I’ve heard of Outbrain and Taboola for a lot of times, but never really used them before, so I’m very glad when getting the chance to try them. Now the first month’s Outbrain and Taboola performance reports have been sent to client, and I can finally write up something about a whole experience of using them from setting up an account to finishing a performance report.

Outbrain and Taboola are two leading content amplification platforms that discover the possible audiences interested in the content, and promote content to these audiences on partner media properties in a natural and imperceptible way.


How do they find the audiences?

The platform engine crawls each piece of content, understands what it is about, categorizes it, and then uses algorithms to serve the article on a variable weighting system. They are employing a large variety of algorithms, but normally the algorithms are grouped into 3 types:

  • Context: The content is matched to contextually relevant articles across the platform’s network.
  • Behavior: The engine looks at the behavior of readers, based on cookies and collaborative filtering, and will serve the content if it sees they are likely to engage with it. It’s like how Amazon recommends products. For example, people who buy Harry Potter books also have a tendency to buy Twilight books, so if you buy a Harry Potter book, Amazon may recommend Twilight.
  • Performance: The performance algorithms look at where the content is getting the highest engagement rates and will optimize to serve more impressions in those high-performing environments. When an article starts to perform well, the engine will start to optimise for this by serving more impressions because people have shown a lot of interest in it. This does not hinder the other articles because the impressions simply increase, and there is not a finite amount of impressions that is given to a campaign. Ultimately, a good campaign will show good distribution across many articles.

This means you can expect a combination of category-specific publishers, alongside broader media sites with news and business sections, as well as publishers where your audience also spends time, like technology and sports sites.

Publishers: Where will your content recommendations appear?

We don’t need to select publishers as the algorithm makes the decision on where content is recommended. The full list of Outbrain and Taboola’s publishers are here:

The publishers are very important since they will actually help to decide which platform you will want to go for. I’ll explain further in the next part – cost projections.

Cost Projections:

For Outbrain, I’ve got an estimation of average CPC as USD 0.37, and estimations of different markets as below:

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 7.01.29 pmFor Taboola, I don’t have detailed estimations for each market, but I’m pretty sure that the average number will be much lower than Outbrain (should be around USD 0.1).

So here comes the question. Outbrain and Taboola are using similar algorithms, but How come do their CPCs have so much discrepancy, and if Taboola is much cheaper, why don’t we just go for it rather than Outbrain? I emailed to Outbrain and also looked up lots of articles online. To combine Outbrain’s reply and other articles’ info, here is the answer:

Outbrain has premium publishers, and they’ve made great effort to keep away shady traffic buyers and inappropriate content, and maintain a certain level of class with buyers, publishers and most importantly – the readers. As a result, which platform is better to use depends on the campaign objective. If we are simply looking for traffic boost or short-term revenue, Taboola is definitely a good choice; but if we want to guarantee the quality of readers, I’d say Outbrain could give us more confidence.

Creative specifications and best practice

If you only have 5 minutes, then I can give you a simple standard answer on the specifications. Both Outbrain and Taboola need a headline and image to generate an ad. Headlines are key to ensure the brand is attracting target audiences and it’s the most critical targeting tool.

  • Headline
    • Taboola: 60 is max – 35-45 is optimal
    • Outbrain: No limit
  • Image
    • Taboola: JPG preferred, at least 400×300 px, under 75kb.
    • Outbrain: a square JPG with a maximum size of 400x400px

But if you have more time, here are more details to learn.

  • Outbrain:
    • Headlines: You can submit as much content and headlines as you like. The more, the merrier! More content increases the opportunity for discovery and thus sustains CTRs over the campaign period. As best practice, it is best to launch with at least 10 stories (URLs). If you have less than 10 stories, please create an additional 3-5 headlines per story — the key is to have at least 10 headlines at launch. Headlines are important for attracting the right audience, and must be written in an editorial style.
    • Images: There is no need to submit images as the system automatically picks up the first image on your story. If your story does not have an image, then you can update it to include one – engaging readers with strong visuals is best practice. Should you wish to use a different image from the article, submit a square JPG with a maximum size of 400x400px.
    • Some best practice here: Outbrain Content Creation Guides & Tips
  • Taboola best practice: Taboola Content Creation Guides & Tips

Campaign set-up

Both Outbrain and Taboola will assign an account manager to serve your account. The difference is, Outbrain will help you to set up the first month’s campaign, and hand it over to you after that. You’ll need to set up the rest of the campaigns and manage them by yourself. However, Taboola will do all of this for you, and you’ll just need to keep an eye on it to make sure all of the setting follows your requirement (This is why I like Taboola better. The account manager that helped me is always reachable, and always proactively offer suggestions based on her daily monitoring).

Once the campaign is confirmed and the contract signed, you can submit URLs, headlines, images, clicktrackers and UTM tags to the account manager, and they will launch the campaign within 3 working days.


Outbrain has 2 types of payment. For markets including US, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Canada, Australia, Israel, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Philippines and India, you can use the self manage system and pay through credit card. For other markets that are not in the list, you’ll have to contact Outbrain to sign an IO with them and pay via invoices.

Here I want to remind advertisers about a new policy released by Outbrain recently:

Outbrain policy

This means if we have a fixed daily budget, we need to reserve 20% buffer when setting the daily cap.

Taboola needs to pay via invoices.

Performance report:

Advertisers will have full access to campaign performance via the Outbrain/Taboola dashboard. Data available:

  • Impressions, Clicks, CTR (Outbrain/Taboola)
  • Spend to-date (Outbrain/Taboola)
  • Performance by country (if you’re running a campaign in multiple countries) (Outbrain/Taboola)
  • Top publishers recommending your content (Outbrain)
  • Performance by headline (Outbrain/Taboola)
  • Performance by platforms (Taboola)

For Taboola, they can also align a fixed time with you for each month, and send you an automatic report at that time. The system-generated report will be most accurate and updated.

To get more info about Outbrain & Taboola’s backend setting, here is a list of tutorials:

Some learnings from a recent social listening project

Doing social listening is a routine for me during the past few years. Having used different kinds of social listening tools like Radian 6, K-Matrix, Sysomos, PR Newswire and so on for different projects, I thought it would be very easy for me to do any listening, no matter it’s to evaluate brand activities and inform an overall social media strategy, to suggest direction for a brand campaign, or to manage and guide a brand crisis. However, I got panic last week when I tried a new tool that was dictated by client to use for a listening task. The data generated by the tool was too limited, and I had to try every means to get results. It’s been a long haul but now the pain is over and I would like to share some tips that I’ve learnt from it.

First of all, keywords’ setting. Needless to say, the keywords we choose would impact the quality of incoming information directly and it is a key factor that affects the level of effort that is required to manage that information. There are many online tools that can easily help us to identify keywords, like WordStream , but what I want to emphasize here is that different listening tools have focuses on different platforms. Some keywords can generate lots of results on one tool, whilst can’t work that well on another. If you have a specific tool to use, you’d better try the keywords on the tool immediately after you come up with them. Make sure these keywords are best for this tool before submitting to client for approval.

Secondly, don’t rely on a single tool. There is no perfect tool that can cover every platform and it is always harmless to do a little manual search to enrich your insights. Better yet, discover some free tools that you can work best with. There are numerous recommendations online for free social listening tools, whilst different people have different using habits and have their own judgment on these tools. To me, I will keep social mentions, Icerocket, TwitterSearch and BoardReader open all the time and search the results now and then as the supplementary to my main tool. Social mentions for real-time search, Icerocket to keep an eye on blogs (even Chinese), Twitter search targets on tweets and BoardReader focuses on boards and forums. So basically when combining these four tools together, the results will already be comprehensive.

Finally, tools can only provide results and it is people who can come up with insights. Tables look professional and charts look persuasive, but we should read carefully what’s behind the numbers. It’s boring to scan the mentions while only through this laborious process can we really harbor meaningful insights. As a result, I also have preference on tools that is easy to read the mentions, like BrandWatch. On BrandWatch, when you click a piece of mention, a page will pop up with the original coverage on it, as well as the number of visitors to the page, rank of the page and previous/next button to other mentions. If you find the automatic sentiment of the mention is not right, you can change directly on it, and it will be corrected automatically throughout the whole system. It is the best design to me comparing to other tools.

I still remember the first time when I did social listening,  it took me such a long time to read the mentions one by one, and I racked my brains to come up with some insights. Now I feel excited about all the learning and progressing, and I will share again once I’ve discovered more. Just keep calm and listen!

Douban – “Interest Marketing”

Douban in China, which was founded in 2005 as “the one and only interest-based social network globally” to help strangers become “soulmates” by finding their common interests,  has now become a trendsetter for Chinese. Today, more than 200 million users share their film reviews in Douban Movies and book reviews in Douban Books , organize or attend activities in Douban Location, comment on recent trend topics in Douban Group, upload favorite music in Douban Music, and listen to radio in Douban FM. Here is a video from Douban’s official site that gives a comprehensive introduction to this social platform:

(Please click this link if you can not view the video: Douban – Interests bring brands and users together)

I am a frequent user of Douban myself and the reason that I would like to recommend it to brands is that it has direct/simple but very useful functions which can combine online and offline campaigns in a natural and consistent way. It has brand stations like Weibo pages, on which brands can post whatever they like to show to their consumers. It also has Douban Location, where users can share and discover local events and activities. Due to Douban’s interest-driven attribute, it’s never difficult for the events to reach target audiences, while brands can do even more to promote and amplify their events to the best.  There are a number of brands that have done a great job in creating buzz online as well as driving audiences to their offline events through Douban, and here I would like to share my favorite one – Burberry’s Art of the Trench.

From Aug 30 to Sep 16, 2013, Burberry’s Art of the Trench event was held in Shanghai. In order to deliver the event’s information to as many audiences as possible and attract them to attend it, Burberry conducted an all-round campaign from online fashion show to offline art event.

At first, they invited 51 KOLs who are all young successful and creative representatives in Shanghai from industries covering entertainment, art, business, fashion, communication and sports. Each of the KOLs would wear a trench coat and choose a landmark in Shanghai to take photos of street snap. The photos and videos were then uploaded to Burberry’s Douban station.

Screen shot 2014-03-13 at 8.06.37 PM

Thanks to the celebrity effect plus those photographs that are full of fashion elements, online users started the communication spontaneously. Topics around stars, trench coat and fashion spread rapidly on Douban. The album was liked and recommended 4,418 times and commented 1,196 times cumulatively. Originated from Douban, the photos were then shared to other social platforms and Burberry created the word-of-mouth magic throughout the whole network.

Then it was the perfect time to announce the event information. Burberry posted an event notice in Douban Location – the largest event publish platform in China . Soon after that more than 1,000 people clicked “interested in this event” and hundreds of people clicked “I will attend this event”. By the end of this event, it had got 1,865 “interested” clicks and 634 “attend” clicks.

Screen shot 2014-03-13 at 8.49.21 PM

After the event, people who have attended it posted feelings and comments on their own Douban stations, groups, reviews ,etc. Through such a 360° campaign, Burberry fully demonstrated its image and creativity as a fashion leader.


Why digital does not equal social By Jon Wade, head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

A great piece for us to think about how to make wise use of digital channels rather than stuck in the assumption that social media is the king.  Reposted from

In my role working for the most part with different PR agencies and their clients in the earned media space, I’ve very often come across an unhelpful assumption that digital equals social media. For a strategist with this assumption comes a tension, between making the right strategic recommendation to achieve the business objectives of a communications challenge while at the same time needing to demonstrate that sometimes social has a role to play and sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s my view that this assumption, that social is the default, is not based on any logical prioritization of the digital channels at our disposal. Rather, it is based on hype, media coverage of the social channel, and a lack of understanding about which channels are best suited to particular business objectives.

If you look at the usage statistics by channel of the various markets across Asia you see a pattern that often flies in the face of this assumption. By way of an example, I was looking through the ADMA 2012 Yearbook in preparation for a speaking engagement I had a month or so back, with a particular focus on the Hong Kong market. The data in this yearbook (a very, very useful free resource by the way, thank you ADMA) really outlined that social, although important, is not necessarily the right channel to go to first, every time, to reach or engage your audiences.

According to the yearbook, of the approximately five million users online in Hong Kong, portals and search engines have greater reach than Facebook. While Facebook had around 75% reach in 2012, Google sites had 82%, Microsoft sites (including Bing) had 83%, and Yahoo sites had 96%.

Beyond Facebook, Sina Weibo the next most popular social platform had only 12% reach. When we then drill in to look at what people were actually doing on the social channels we find even more damning evidence. Twenty-three percent of people were using social media to stay in touch with friends, only 5% were using it to share content, and only 0.3% were using it to talk about a brand or product.

Smartphone data was also really interesting. Hong Kong has around 50% to 60% smartphone penetration according to the yearbook and the top activities are searching, emailing, reading the news, checking the weather forecast, and instant messaging. So again, social, while important (in this case in the form of instant messaging) is still a way behind less trendy techniques like search marketing, email marketing, and PR (to influence the news).

So on the evidence of these statistic you would, in Hong Kong at least, place social some way down the list of “must do” digital techniques. Of course, different markets have different data sets and in some cases I am sure social is top of the tree. And there are lies, damned lies and statistics as the saying goes. That’s fine – I’m not trying to diminish social media as a legitimate channel – rather I am trying to make the point that we should all be careful of the assumptions we make about the right channels and techniques to deploy to meet the specific business objectives. Sometimes social is the right solution, sometimes it isn’t. It should not be the automatic default.

In the same way that digital advocates have been pointing out that TV is not and should not be the default channel anymore, we need to be very careful we don’t fall into the same trap by making social the default channel for digital.

Jon Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick.

Lessons from Consumer Rights Day in China

March 15th in China is a big day for brands, signaling International Consumer Rights Day. Each year, consumers are given the opportunity to air their grievances and brands hope that it isn’t their products that catch the public’s ire.

One of the media highlights of the day is the “3.15 International Consumer Rights Day” TV show on national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). This year, the unfortunate brands singled out included Apple, Volkswagen, Jianghuai Tongyue (Chinese car brand), Hong Kong-based Chow Tai Seng Jewellery,, and Gaolaotai (Chinese healthcare product brand).

But what really caught the public’s imagination this year was a related post on the Weibo microblog that may have unintentionally helped Apple escape too fierce an attack.

As the TV show went live, netizens in China began an animated discussion on Weibo in real time. Soon after Apple was accused of double standards for its record of poor after-sale service in China compared to other countries, a number of famous posters on Weibo began to criticize Apple.

Among them was Peter Ho, a Taiwanese actor with 5.3 million fans on Weibo, who posted the message:  “#3.15 action# Apple plays so many tricks on the after-sale service. I feel so hurt as a big fan of Apple. This is a shame on Steve Jobs. Apple abuses its power and bullies the consumers. It will be posted at around 8:20 pm.”

While few saw any problem with Ho’s sentiment, that last sentence was jarring. With the post being made at exactly 8.26pm, it fuelled suspicion that the actor may have been acting on behalf of a third party and that his feeling toward Apple may not have been genuine.

The Weibo post was reposted more than 1,700 times in just one hour, and ‘8:20’ quickly became a Weibo buzzword. Peter Ho joined in the conversation around 10pm saying that he did not post the tweet, and that his account must have been hacked.

Despite his denials, Ho and the ‘8.20’ meme was soon the target if much online mirth and criticism. Screen shots of other anti-Apple posts from famous Weibo posters were shared around, along with many sardonic comments. The upshot was a wave of sympathy for Apple for being the victim of what appeared to be an orchestrated attack.

But the lessons from the ‘8.20’ episode go wider. While the identity of the potential third party involved in Ho’s post remains unknown, it was an abject lesson is how not to use an online key opinion leader (KOL).

Authenticity is central: if a celebrity KOL genuinely loves your brand, this will be reflected in their interactions. If the KOL is being used as a paid shill, using their fame and influence in a cynical manner, the smallest sign that this may be the case will be jumped on by an eager army of critics, especially in China where truth on Weibo is a much more desired commodity than it is on traditional media such as CCTV. Ho may have got off lightly, but other brands may not be so lucky.

Organizations use digital to leverage TV deals

Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year) has always been the big one as far as Chinese television is concerned, with almost an entire nation tuning into the annual Spring Festival Gala TV show aired by national broadcaster CCTV. Since its debut in 1983, the show has been a must-watch on Spring Festival Eve, with reported audience numbers regularly exceeding 700 million.

With that kind of exposure, it is not surprising that the event has also been a magnet for brands. While the show has no ad breaks and regulators have now clamped down on product placements, the ad slots that come immediately before and after the show are highly coveted.

However, for young consumers in particular the gala has lost some of its appeal. A tired format and a jaded and fragmented audience has led to audiences migrating to other offerings on provincial TV stations or forsaking traditional TV viewing altogether for online video and other forms of digital entertainment.

So, given these circumstances, how can brands build an association with the biggest TV event of the year? One answer may come from an alternative big night of TV ratings — New Year’s Eve. Unlike in the West, this was not traditionally a big night in the Chinese TV calendar, but this changed several year’s ago when Hunan TV launched its New Year’s Eve show. Other large broadcasters — including CCTV — have now followed suit and celebrities and viewers have caught on to the trend.

Importantly for brands, the New Year’s Eve shows are not subject to restrictive branding regulations. But where the Spring Festival Gala advertising has always been about a brand throwing huge amounts of cash on a single-channel exposure, the most recent round of New Year’s Eve programming showed brands committed to a more integrated and sustainable approach, specifically one that tapped into online media consumption habits in China.

A good example from this year is Jiaduobao, a popular cooling herbal tea brand in China. After building its image on ‘The Voice of China’ (last year’s most popular talent show) the brand extended its title sponsorships to the New Year’s Eve’s shows of CCTV, Hunan TV and Zhejiang TV.

Jiaduobao turned to online social channels to better leverage its investment, creating a weibo account for its CCTV sponsorship and running various activities before, during and after the show’s broadcast. The account launched on December 22, and gathered over 52,000 fans around 244 total posts. The brand ran similar online initiatives in relation to its other TV deals.

With the more traditional Spring Festival Gala broadcast on February 9, it will be interesting to see how many brands follow the Jiaduobao example, especially given the current advertising restrictions. With official sponsorship of the show limited and audiences turning to online entertainment, the opportunity is still there to to optimise the halo effect of the most-viewed TV show in the world.

Originally posted for PR agency Weber Shandwick (employer)

Photocredit: CCTV/JDB

Yao Chen and The Hobbit

What is it that links a Chinese actress, the New Zealand Tourism Board, China’s biggest micro-blogging site and this year’s most high-profile movie release?

The answer lies in a very clever piece of integrated marketing.

The appearance of Yao Chen in a stunning blue dress complimented with elf ears at the world premier of The Hobbit in New Zealand earlier this week would have left most onlookers somewhat bemused. Yao is not starring in the movie and is little known outside of her native China. So why was she there?

To get to bottom of this, we need to start online. Yao may not have international presence of, say, Zhang Ziyi or Jackie Chan, but inside China it is an entirely different story. Yao is better known to China’s huge online community as the ‘Queen of Weibo’, and with over 26 million fans she has the most followed account on the micro-blogging site. She is the Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga you have never heard of.

In addition – and no doubt because of this popularity — Yao is an official ambassador for the New Zealand Tourism Board. And with the tourism board currently marketing itself around its Middle Earth links, her attendance at one of the country’s biggest events of the year slowly starts to make sense.

But the story doesn’t end there. The makers of The Hobbit no doubt jumped at the chance of having Yao walk the red carpet and share those lovely Hobbit-branded photographs with her vast network of followers. Sounds over cynical? Maybe not: The Hobbit recently opened up its own Weibo page, which attracted nearly 2,000 followers, and so is not immune to the benefits of micro-blogging in China. And what’s the bet that those follower numbers increase rapidly following Yao’s personal endorsement?

All in, this was a case study example not just of traditional celebrity endorsement but also the power of utilising online key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the China market. Yao’s fan base, as well as her personal and professional links to New Zealand (she held her marriage ceremony in the country earlier this month), made her a perfect choice to promote the new movie launch.

Although China limits the number of overseas-produced movies allowed in the market, The Hobbit has made the approved list and will be released at cinemas in early 2013. Thanks to Yao Chen, the first leg of the movie’s marketing campaign in China is now complete.

Originally posted for PR agency Weber Shandwick (employer)