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Is This Story An Ad?

It’s an uncomfortable question in the age of the “advertorial” and “sponsored content.” Versa aims to solve it in a way that’s a win-win-win for publishers, brands, and readers.

Is This Story An Ad?
[Image: Flickr user Steven Leonti]

A few months ago, the Atlantic caught a drubbing. The media company, with its distinguished brand anchored by a 157-year-old magazine, made the mistake of running a piece of “sponsored content” with a headline about Scientology’s “Milestone Year.” Though a yellow rectangle above the post labeled it as “sponsor content,” the post otherwise appeared like any other article on the website. Gawker jumped on the story; others followed; and the Atlantic soon apologized. It added, however, “We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising”–which is indeed a necessity for most media brands that want to stay afloat in this age.

Keya Dannenbaum

Keya Dannenbaum of Versa thinks she has the solution. Versa is a new platform that enables sponsored content to appear on websites in a way that she feels will satisfy editors, publishers, advertisers, and readers. After some months in beta with a select few partners, Versa announces $2 million in seed funding today, plus its intention to serve media brands and advertisers across the country.

Versa works simply enough. Versa has publishers add a snippet of code to their site, which creates a space right below an article. When a publisher puts out a piece on a certain topic, Versa’s alerts a network of organizations that may want to publish their take on the news, in a little box beneath the article. Placement and various design elements make it abundantly clear that the response is paid for. Versa calls it “the op-ed for the digital age.”

It’s worth looking at one example up close. Take, for instance, this Oct. 18 RealClearPolitics article about Obamacare’s software woes, by Michael Barone.

RealClearPolitics article about Obamacare’s software woes, by Michael Barone.

Barone wrote the content with full journalistic integrity, and without any consideration of how the publishing side of things might try to monetize the content. Then Versa made a match: It knew that Maxwell Health, a company billing itself as an “operating system for employee benefits,” wanted to establish itself as a “thought leader” in matters pertaining to health care, technology, and the like. Versa sold placement as a “Featured Perspective,” took a cut, and gave RealClearPolitics the rest.

The match could be made manually since Versa’s current list of clients and partners is short; as that list grows, though, Versa will rely on proprietary technology that scours the web for content, prompting matches with organizations and allowing them to act quickly on getting a (paid) word in edgewise.

Also worth noting is the “+Respect” button next to the Twitter link at the bottom of the ad. Dannenbaum says that that choice of wording emerges from findings from UT Austin’s “Engaging News Project,” to the effect that using words like “respect” helps moderate comments sections and enables “more cross-partisan appreciation for different points of view,” in Dannenbaum’s words. “It helps readers engage: ‘Even if I disagree with this, I respect the argument.’”


Versa represents an intriguing pivot from Dannenbaum’s previous effort, a startup called ElectNext that helped users determine which political candidates best fit their own views (we called it an “OKCupid for Politics” in an earlier post). Dannenbaum found that few users were visiting ElectNext as a standalone sight; however, ElectNext’s embeddable widgets became popular on RealClearPolitics and other political news sites. As monetization became a more pressing issue, Dannenbaum and her team shifted their focus from the health of politics to the health of media, bringing to bear the expertise they’d gained in the world of widgetry and opinion.

“Sponsored commentary is just one step in what I hope will be a company that produces multiple products,” says Dannenbaum. “There’s no question that making this move for Versa is a move in the direction of making the press stronger.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.