Sharethrough’s CTO Discusses the VAN Acquisition, Native, and the Failings of Interruptive Advertising

Robert FanSharethrough are a native advertising company with a proprietary ad platform and ‘in-feed’ ad exchange. The company recently moved into the European market with the acquisition of London-based Viral Ad Network, with additional offices to follow.  Here Robert Fan, founder and CTO at Sharethrough, discusses the acquisition, how the European native advertising market compares with the US, the problem with interruptive advertising, and the future of native.

Congratulations on acquiring Viral Ad Network (VAN), and for clearing up the confusion between us and them.  Could you provide a little background on your motivation for buying the company?

Ha, thank you! It all came down to the team. We have known the VAN guys for years and have always felt that we were kindred spirits in our shared love of good content and emphasis on creating a quality user experience. When we looked at opening our UK presence and saw the opportunity to hit the ground running with a fully-staffed team that already shared our worldview and culture, we jumped on it.

How does the European native advertising market compare with the US?

From our experience in the European market to date Europe seems to be six months or so behind the US from a publisher perspective, but perhaps ahead from an advertiser perspective.

Europe’s always been very strong (if not a leader) when it comes to content marketing, so on the advertiser side there hasn’t been any difficulty in convincing brands / agencies that *native* is the way to go.  On the publisher side things are a little bit less advanced, largely due to internal debates at larger publishing houses around the threat some people see native as having to *editorial integrity*.  The bottom-line for publishers is that they need to monetise their inventory, and with banner ad yield dropping, then the commercial reality of adopting native advertising to help generate new revenues is ever growing.

Facebook has recently had to revise it’s policy when it comes to in-stream ads, particularly when it comes to poor quality click-bait content. Do you encounter similar problems on your exchange and how do you maintain a high standard of advertising?

As a company we have always focused on building a demand pipeline of quality branded content. Our top brand advertisers understand that they need to create good content to truly be effective within in-feed placements, and over the past few years we have worked together to further refine the approach. Beyond just education though, we recently added a tech feature called Content Quality Score (CQS) to help the best content rise to the top in our exchange. Our CQS is similar to the Google quality score in the sense that it evaluates how people respond to the specific piece, but we don’t consider the performance of the ad in our network. Instead we focus on underlying metrics of the content itself (e.g. social sharing data, sentiment analysis, view and time data, etc) to assure users will have a great experience after they click on that ad.

Sharethrough have been fairly vocal in the past when it comes to criticising interruptive advertising. However, many (including VAN) would say the reality is that interruptive advertising enables a multiplicity of brands to reach huge audiences at a reasonably low cost. Can user-initiated advertising – whether it’s native or just content marketing – achieve a similar level of reach and scale, or is it just part of the solution when it comes to improving advertising? 

You’re right, we’re extremely vocal when it comes to criticising interruptive advertising!  Sharethrough’s world view of advertising is based around a real respect for website users and not annoying them by interrupting them.  If you look at the big modern publishers – like Buzzfeed and Twitter – then they’re 100% betting on running non-interruptive native ads at scale, which is proof that it is possible to achieve similar levels of reach and scale.  It’s our bet that the rest of the web will follow suit, as publishers realise it’s unsustainable to keep on annoying their users.

How is native advertising likely to evolve in the future? 

In short I think the best word to describe what the future of native advertising looks like is *better*.  By that I mean that there are a few native pioneers who are really doing native well at the moment, but then there’s a much bigger pool of publishers and advertisers who are doing it badly (or not at all).  Companies like Sharethrough provide the technology to scale native, but alongside technology there is a responsibility for advertisers to create quality content and a need for publishers to embrace native appropriately.

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