Every day, Internet users are hit with a barrage of advertisements, from banners to promoted tweets to pre-roll YouTube ads. Very rarely do those users think of annoying ads as opportunities to learn about a brand’s story. But StumbleUpon‘s Teal Newland, the discovery aggregator’s first-ever Vice President of Sales, believes she knows exactly when we’re most open to just that.
A little more than a year ago, StumbleUpon, the largest social referrer of web traffic, launched Paid Discovery, a service that inserts ads and other paid content into users’ Stumble sessions based on their interests (around one out of every 20 stumbles comes from Paid Discovery). Paid Discovery ads target users who are already in a state of exploration and, yes, serendipitous discovery. But unlike, say, Twitter‘s similar Promoted Tweets, Paid Discovery brings users directly to an advertiser’s website without a click-through, allowing a brand to put its best foot forward and tell its story in a way 140 characters simply can’t.
“We feel that we can effectively weave an advertiser’s story or message into the natural experience of a StumbleUpon user,” Newland says. “It becomes a better experience for the brand and it becomes a better experience for users.”
Newland, the former Vice President of Digitas who helped oversee brand strategy for major players like Disney and American Express, may not seem like the logical choice to head up the advertising unit of a web startup. But part of her new role will involve consulting StumbleUpon’s 75,000 advertisers, which include AOL, Paramount Pictures, and Intuit, on how to get the most out of the site’s advertising tools. “My experience over the last year was rooted in storytelling of the brand,” Newland says. “We’re really in the market for sitting down with agencies who are thinking of creating content.”
For the uninitiated, StumbleUpon functions by allowing users to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down to each page they visit, an action which then informs what content the site will serve up next. The hope is that StumbleUpon can duplicate this process for paid content as well. And based on the company’s own studies, it sounds like they’re already beginning to accomplish this feat.
“When we recommend a piece of content to a user, on average, they’re typically thumb-upping content about 90% of the time,” says Mike Mayzel, StumbleUpon’s Director of Communications. “For the ads, they typically thumb those up 75% of the time. That’s a testament to the fact that we’re showing relevant interesting content, whether or not it’s a paid or free experience.”
Mayzel also showed me a case study of what happened when one of their clients, the fast-food chain Arby’s, wanted to use social networks to drive traffic to a specific YouTube clip. Although it devoted 37% of the initiative’s promotion budget to StumbleUpon advertising, 42% to Facebook advertising, and 21% to Twitter advertising, 91% of the video’s views originated from StumbleUpon.
But despite StumbleUpon’s effectiveness at driving traffic, its user base still pales in comparison to networks like Facebook. Furthermore, it takes more than a captive audience, even one in a state of exploration, to sell products. Advertisers need to know how to create the kind of vibrant, memorable, and shareable content that StumbleUpon users have come to expect. But with Newland’s expertise in brand-storytelling, combined with a proven platform that turns ad-consumption into a native, organic experience, StumbleUpon could quickly define itself as an indispensable partner in the world of web advertising.
[Image: Flickr user Wombatunderground1]