What is the meaning of the Internet? Is it a moving narrative about a boy whose brain could unlock the mystery of autism, or is it a gif of a litter of kittens riding a Roomba, falling off one by one?
Most Internet users—from casual browsers to hardcore Redditors—like to think they are above clickbait, yet inevitably we are all lured into posts like "35 White-Girl Mysteries That Desperately Need To Be Solved." It's a Sisyphean fight to rise about mindless listicles and misleading stories that overpromise and underdeliver, but one renegade group has been leading an underground charge to right the Internet's wrongs. Okay, so it's more like a confab of white-collared execs in the publishing and tech industries who email each other a few times a week—not exactly Internet vigilantes—but can they help create a more meaningful Internet?
In January, the advertising company Sharethrough quietly established a $1 million fund to highlight standouts on the Internet. The Meaningful Content Fund, as it is known, promotes articles, videos, and photos on its native ad platform, with the idea of giving the dying art of storytelling an added push on the web.
Its advisory board, which helps curate the three to five pieces of content promoted each week, comprises Medium senior editor and former Wired.com editor-in-chief Evan Hansen, Quartz president and publisher Jay Lauf, Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile, Twitter head of innovation and growth James Buckhouse, Sharethrough CEO Dan Greenberg, and Sharethrough president Patrick Keane.
Being on the board has been relatively low commitment. Aside from dashing off emails to nominate and weigh in on picks, the execs also hop on monthly conference calls. Its first in-person board meeting will take place this morning at the Native Advertising Summit, where Sharethrough will formally announce the initiative.
Thus far, the fund has awarded about $13,000 in free advertising to about 40 creators, increasing their exposure by somewhere around half a million readers. Overall, stories selected by this advisory board, typically promoted for three to four days, have seen a 220% increase in reach compared with the average piece of content on Sharethrough's platform.
It took a lot of back and forth, but the board arrived at the following criteria for meaningful content:
- Connection with the subject matter
- Original thought
- Advancing an idea
- Depth of engagement
"This is our stake on the ground. We're exploring the meaning of meaning," Sharethrough CEO Dan Greenberg tells Fast Company. "Content that matches this definition of meaning, we're putting distribution behind it."
Though not a rigid criteria, it's a bonus to showcase gems that never got their due on the web—content that Greenberg describes as "so incredibly awesome that if it doesn't go viral viral, we're deeming it underappreciated."
When Sharethrough broached Tony Haile, CEO of analytics platform Chartbeat, to join the advisory board, he thought it was a great alignment of both companies' missions to shape a better web. "In an ideal world, this fund wouldn't have to exist," Haile maintains. "In an ideal world, great quality content wouldn't need this push."
But the Internet isn't an ideal world. "So many of the stories you hear about are the lowest common denominator," he adds.
One of the fund's early beneficiaries is Jared Rosenthal, a film student at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. King Solomon, his video about a New York City subway drummer, originated as a school project. He uploaded a director's cut, shortened from five minutes to about two, to Vimeo, where it was highlighted as a staff pick a week and a half after its release.
About a month later, Rosenthal received an out-of-the-blue email from Greenberg:
Subject: Your video has been selected for free promotion by the advisory board at MeaningfulContent.org (or: more people are going to watch your video, for free)
We haven't met, but I'm part of an under-the-radar internet group called MeaningfulContent.org that has banded together to promote amazing, "meaningful" content.
We're a mix of tech and media execs who love stories, and who are encouraged to see a movement starting — away from obnoxious, clickbait content that too often disappoints, and back towards truly meaningful content.
To that end, we've put together a $1M "Meaningful Content Fund," and we are awarding free distribution grants to writers/creators that are making truly great content.
I'm happy to tell you that we think your video is fantastic and that we are going to pay to give it some extra exposure.
There's no catch: you'll just see your video show up as a promoted story in the mobile feeds of some top publishers across the web (People, The Atlantic and Paper Mag, to name a few), giving it more exposure to people who'll hopefully appreciate it as much as we do.
Thanks for making something meaningful, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions.
In line with the average Meaningful Content Fund pick, the reach of King Solomon doubled compared with the platform average, according to Sharethrough. The Atlantic also hosted the video on its website (figures for that weren't available to Rosenthal), and some photo blogs featured it as well. These distribution channels helped Rosenthal's King Solomon hit more than 100,000 plays on Vimeo and also produced a spike in traffic for his other video projects.
"I was topping out at 5,000 to 6,000 views on other projects," Rosenthal says. Though he admits not knowing much about the fund or its mission, he's appreciative of the support. "As a student, I don't have studio backing or corporate backing, so getting exposure any way possible is sort of essential."
Beyond putting ad dollars behind articles, Sharethrough is also using its know-how to help maximize reach the second time around. When it promotes stories, it runs a number of a/b tests to see which headlines perform best—a tool it offers to advertisers.
For the Medium story "The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism," which explores an emerging theory behind the neurological condition, Sharethrough tested a number of headlines in regions across the U.S. The point is to understand how people respond emotionally to an article and which "emotional vectors," as Greenberg calls it, perform best.
Such headlines for that story included:
- Meet the Father Who Is Turning Autism Research Inside-Out to Treat His Son (heartwarming)
- This Man Has Devoted His Life to Autism Research—and Completely Changed the Way We Think About It (inspiring)
- The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism (fascinating)
Benefiting from such optimization, the 7,500-word article received a 1.6 time boost in reach compared with the platform average. Through these tests, Sharethrough found the heartwarming headline most compelling, especially in the South, where it saw a nearly 300% lift, according to its latest numbers.
Yet as altruistic as the Meaningful Content Fund sounds, Sharethrough stands to gain from this noble experiment.
"What we're doing is training users to understand content [on Sharethrough] isn't always advertising," Greenberg says. Even when it comes to native advertising, some savvy Internet users can tell ads from stories. The company is hoping this fund will further blur the line between ads and content—and get readers to accept that branded or sponsored content can be as meaningful as the stories its fund curates.
It's not just Sharethrough taking aim at clickbait.
One of the most high-profile examples is Facebook, which has been on a tireless journey to declutter its News Feed. In this year alone, the social network redesigned the News Feed, released the standalone app Paper to read and share content, and tweaked its algorithm to deprioritize clickbait stories and automatic postings by third parties.
Another, and perhaps unlikely, ally in this fight is social-scoring site Klout. "It's an infinitely complex challenge," asserts Klout CEO Joe Fernandez.
In February, the company launched a content-sharing platform that recommends articles for users to share—a move to help them improve their social media score, and ultimately, to lure them back to the site. In particular, Klout is keen on calling attention to content that a user's network hasn't already seen.
"There's nothing worse than 5 million people sharing the clickbaity Mashable article or whatever it is," says Fernandez. "We really pride ourselves on surfacing hidden gems."
Unlike Sharethrough, which relies on human curation, Klout takes an algorithmic approach. To find such gems, the company analyzes about 15 billion daily interactions—including feedback signals, such as upvoting, downvoting, and shares—on its platform to understand the content that is already shared on one's network. True to its core, the content shared by the most influential Klout users factors heavily into its suggestions.
"There's so much noise," Fernandez explains. "It's a tough challenge because you have to be able to navigate bots and changing headline text—all these different things."
Outbrain is also looking to recommendations to tackle this problem. Readers of websites such as CNN, NBC News, Us Weekly, and, yes, Fast Company might know Outbrain by its "You Might Also Like" suggestions at the bottom of articles. Its platform has been integrated into more than 100,000 websites, reaching more than 500 million viewers each month.
"What we're doing is powering serendipitous discovery of great content," says chief revenue officer Tom Foran. "We're not driven by anything other than the likelihood of users to engage with content."
The content-discovery platform is powered by more than 50 algorithms that look for feedback, such as article context and frequency of shares, to recommend stories personalized to the reader. "All of us at Outbrain believe great content ultimately wins out," says Foran. But he's somewhat skeptical native advertising is the answer, referring to it as "ads masquerading as content."
"Brands can benefit and publishers can benefit," he notes about native advertising. "Where it goes wrong is if it's an ad that's inauthentic or a spammy piece of content. That's when native advertising breaks down and the whole triangle of trust between the user, marketer, and publisher completely breaks down."
Still he adds: "If done correctly, it can be that holy grail."
Chartbeat's Haile, on the other hand, believes the key is changing how publishers measure—to reward meaningfulness rather than clicks. "Whether I read the content or not, whether it's good or bad, whether I love it or loathe it, it all takes place before I read it, once it loads," he says. Some publishers, such as the Financial Times, are moving away from impressions, choosing instead to sell ads against blocks of time. "If it's more engaging, it's worth more," he explains. "If you can change that, change the fundamental economics of how we value content, that's when you have meaningful content that captures people's attention."
Regardless of how successful the Meaningful Content Fund proves to be, it's apparent it's not a scalable solution. Recognizing this, Haile is still optimistic of its impact. "It promises a better web," he says. "If the Meaningful Content Fund can help us get toward it, it's fantastic."