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Fork Media Founder Samar Verma On Native Advertising Pricing & Metrics In India

Fork Media, backed by Rishi Khiani’s Ant Farm*, has introduced two Advertising platforms: Brand Press, which is a native advertising platform, and Impulse, which is an image monetization platform. While Brand Press monetizes via sponsor driven content, Impulse creates interactivity on image galleries hosted by publishers. Fork, which launched in April this year, has so far delivered 150 campaigns for its clients, but only 14 of them have been “Native”, its Founder and CEO Samar Verma told MediaNama.

Native Advertising is a relatively new approach to online advertising, wherein brands provide content based on what users are passionate about, as opposed to sponsor content, where brand push their marketing message. Still finding its feet at a global level, Native Advertising is mostly absent in India. We spoke with Verma to get a sense of what advertisers are saying about Native Advertising, its metrics and pricing, the concerns that publishers have, and whether Native Advertising can scale:

Advertiser Acceptability

MediaNama: How are advertisers reacting to Native Advertising in India? My perception is that it is fairly alien to them.
Verma: The way I look at Native Advertising, is that it is brand messaging seeded in content. Content Marketing as such has existed in forms across media, but it’s a limited set of advertisers that has accepted content marketing. (For example) Shell may have wanted to do something around energy conservation, and I build that entire zone out for them, over 2-3 months, as a platform to engage with the audience.

We’ve realized that this only works if you offer scale. Will and advertiser build for just one platform? It won’t happen. There are challenges, but the concept isn’t alien, and there’s a hand-holding process required.

Gone are the days that you used to talk about what your product and service is all about, other than creating awareness. Once the awareness is there, you’re looking for the passion point for your audience, and you build content around that. That’s why Vodafone does (advertises on) Roadies. What we are doing is, lets take the same thing to short form content. You end up creating content from the perspective of the passion point for the audience..

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MediaNama: Do you take a direct advertiser approach to sales? How do the agencies react because you might be stepping on their turf.
Verma: The clients have an understanding of what this can do for them, but they’re not fully involved in the process. From a larger market perspective, agency involvement is critical. They don’t see this as a case of stepping on their turf. They see it as a platform which gives another engagement point. GroupM has launched MashUp which is about content marketing, and this (BrandPress) is a platform that they can use.

Publisher Reactions

MediaNama: How are publishers reacting? What are the prerequisites they want? Publications tend to be iffy about ads appearing similar to editorial
Verma: Publishers are open to native till the time we ensure that the format clearly gets demarcated as a sponsored post or feature. I think revenue growth is no more horizontal, it is vertically driven so I have to break down my offerings and position each of them differently in the market. This has become an alternative engagement point for brands and it clearly drives incremental values for publishers. It helps that lot of larger online publishers in the west have adopted the native ad model and that in a way sets the trend for our Indian counterparts to follow.

MediaNama: How do the disclosures happen? Typically with Native Advertising, you see a different font or background color for the content.
Verma: Let’s look at the Outbrain model: Outbrain does recommendations. We thought the widget idea is not great because it’s at the bottom of the srcoll and the levels of engagement can vary. We don’t have widgets, but we’ve got content placements across sites that we’ve taken ownership of with different publishers. The content is clearly demarcated as being on top and a promoted feature. If it’s a story about the rising love of SUV’s in India, with Mahindra content, there’s text based disclosure.

MediaNama: That also answers the question of RSS feeds and identification of sponsored content across platforms, where color and font might be app/user controlled.
Verma: Yeah.

MediaNama: About the scalability of Native Advertising, do you custom create different content for different publishers, or is it the same content across publishers?
Verma: It’s the same content. I have one creative across multiple platforms. The creative in this case is the content. It’s one piece that goes across all publishers.

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MediaNama: How does the same native ad across sites impact the publishers SEO?
Verma: It has no SEO implications, since the content is being super imposed on templates through FORK servers.

Metrics in use: The Virality Index

MediaNama: What kind of metrics do you have for Native Advertising?
Verma: That was a tricky one. We didn’t want to follow the traditional model of clicks, leads and impressions. The way forward for this was to build a different set of metrics, called the Virality Index. The Virality Index measures the how your content performs in terms of the number of views, number of shares, the average time spent, the number of comments. We introduce it as the metric for measuring such a campaign.


MediaNama: How are you pricing native ads?
Verma: In terms of pricing model, there were two thoughts in our mind: Nuclei and Outbrain follow a very simple bidding process, with a cost per view. Now the Indian market, for the short tail publishers like the Times of India and Hindustan Times to take this model on, the pricing has to be justified. We have a hybrid pricing model today: for the short tail, we have a cost per post, and for the long tail, we have a cost-per-view. As an advertiser, do you want reach or do you want premium audiences? At TIL (Verma was with Times Internet Ltd prior to starting Fork Media) Outbrain never gave us substantial revenue, because the model was like Google text ads. It dilutes the proposition and gives a backdoor entry to an advertiser at a price point that I don’t want to operate at.

MediaNama: How does this work with rates? If there a differential rate for each publisher?
Verma: We categorize publishers across different genres and according to Comscore ratings, with differential rates. Today, Display (advertising) has a bench mark in terms of CPC and CPM, which is hugely limiting. We’re nowhere close to the CPM’s that you can command in the West. There is no benchmark today for content marketing, and it’s will be set by the demand supply situation. I’m a believer in irrational pricing, which TV and print work on, and digital should adopt it. We don’t want to go down the route of back-calculation of eCPM. For my short tail, it ranges from Rs 50,000 per article to Rs 1.5 lakhs. For a long tail, it is between Rs 5-15 cost per view.

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Scaling and Platforms

MediaNama: One issue with native advertising is that there’s a belief that it can’t scale. Where do your platforms come in?
Verma: The belief is that we don’t need to have be device specific, but engagement point led. The consumer consumes text, images and videos, and the ad solution needs to tap into this, and be device agnostic. Impulse goes after engagement points, which is images. Also what this does for Fork is that our long form content piece – we’re launching Reliance Investopedia with Reliance Mutual Fund, which is a series across three months. If I can distribute content, this complements Think Tank.

With Brand Press, the differentiator is the analytics that we’ve built out. With Impulse, we’ve cracked image recognition. Brands tend to stay away from image advertising because of the kind of images (read: photo galleries) that many publications have. So, can we create a brand-safe enviroment? We take a dump of the image repository, and then we play the ad out on that. We’ve got image recognition, which identifies the exposure of skin on that image, and it gets classified. The ad is an interactive experience.

MediaNama: How do you deal with integrating Brand Press, which is text based, since different publishers have different platforms?
Verma: We’re doing a standardized format across the board, and you’re right when you say that it would be a nightmare for an advertiser to custom create an ad for each publisher. 70% of my publishers today, we have a standardized approach, and with 30% we have to custom create.

We do two types of integrations. One is at the CMS levels through API’s, which includes all standard CMS’ that publishers use. The other option is for publishers to embed java script codes and we serve content through our servers on publisher templates. It can be really tedious for a brand: how does the article get played out, what kind of a template is used, can you have a sanitised template.

Disclosure: Ant Farm is an advertiser with MediaNama

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