Posted February 20, 2013 4:08 pm by with 0 comments

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new york timesDigital subscriptions and online advertising haven’t turned into the gold mine newspapers were hoping for when they made the transition from print to screen. But when you look at the history of the newspaper industry in this country, digital is relatively new, so they’re still working out the kinks.

What they need are some fresh ideas and the New York Times has that covered.  Michael Zimbalist, head of the NYT’s research and development department, talked to Beet.TV about a new concept in ad targeting. It’s called “Sparking Stories” and it ties ads together with articles that are trending on Twitter.

Zimbalist says his team has learned a lot about demographics and the lifespan of a news article by watching it move through the Twittersphere.

“We’ve been tracking the mentions of the Times content in Twitter for a really long time. And we’ve been able to visualize how content spreads through Twitter  and we’ve been able to look at different types of content and different people who spread the content and begin to model out which content is going to start trending. . . I can look at the way a story spreads, then I can look at everybody who touched that story in Twitter and I can back into the demos of that network. If I can activate that story again with a different story, then I’d be able to predict it’s reach and demographics.”

I’m sure it’s not as simple as Zimbalist makes it sound, but imagine the impact on content marketers if you could predict which stories would hit. It’s like writing to keywords for SEO purposes only here, you’d be combining ideas in order to reach a specific demographic.

It’s the Frankenstein approach. Your target audience likes Beyonce, cooking and fashion – so you write a story about how Beyonce likes to dress when she’s cooking in the kitchen. It could work.

The New York Times is taking it a step further by adding ads into the mix. They created a tool that figures out which stories are trending on Twitter, then lumps those stories together as a “Sparking Stories” ad package. What’s unusual about this ad buy is that it’s not category specific. An advertiser who opts in could end up with one ad on an entertainment article and another on a story about politics. They aren’t paying for interest targeting, they’re paying to be a part of the most popular stories on the site and that’s gotta be worth something.

It’s a smart idea because trending stories often reach people who wouldn’t normal follow another story in that category. For example, I don’t read the news online but if everyone in my Twitter feed is talking about a crime, I’m going to click through and see what happened. The downside is that a large number of views will come from people who aren’t interested in the ad because it’s not demographically targeted.

And, unless there are filters in place, ads could end up appearing on pages where they aren’t appropriate, like a Victoria’s Secret ad on a story about a shooting spree.

On the whole, “Sparking Stories” sounds like a good move and if it works, it could begin to change how we think about demographics and ad targeting.