Move over, contributor networks: Publishers are turning to audiences for help with ad campaigns

To find the right concepts for ad campaigns it puts in front of its audience, Hong Kong-based publisher 9GAG has been asking said audience for ideas.

For creative campaigns it’s made for advertisers including Dunkin Donuts and smartphone maker OnePlus, 9GAG has sought submissions from a parts of a group of 500 creators it’s culled from the 25,000 people who submit content to the mostly user-generated site. The group, whose members are  paid on projects it participates in, helps 9GAG with everything from advertising campaign ideas to creative editorial development. A couple long-form video series, developed with those creators, will launch later this fall.

9GAG’s not alone. To win advertiser budgets with creative services, some publishers that tend to be small and user generated content-based (Thought Catalog and Tumblr are a couple others) are putting audience ideas and content at the heart of their pitches. To avoid the cost of a large creative department, the publishers tap influencer and amateur creators, many of whom are just starting their professional careers or who are eager for a creative outlet on the side.

Such programs can mean six figures in revenue and the chance to build direct relationships with advertisers. They come with headaches, too. These talents are rarely offered retainers, so publishers need to spend money to keep creators feeling engaged and valued. On the advertising side, publishers also need to explain away the irony of turning to a publisher for help getting ideas from amateurs.

“It’s this really delicate balancing act,” said Chris Lavergne, the CEO of Thought Catalog. “Right now our priority is educating clients.”

The concept of a crowd-sourced creative network is not new, said Eric Levin, evp and chief content officer of Spark Foundry. And years ago, publishers embraced contributor networks years ago as a low-cost way to scale an audience.

Yet some of these creative-sourced efforts are new. Thought Catalog’s Collective World, a 9,100-person network comprised mostly of millennial women, launched in stealth mode in December; 9GAG’s creator network, which is invite-only, is under a year old; Tumblr’s Creatrs program launched in 2015.

These publishers have won business this way from a wide range of brands. Tumblr’s Creatrs network claims to have worked with over 200 brands since its launch; Collective World has campaigns underway for hospitality and marijuana brands; 9GAG has created work for brands including Dunkin’ Donuts, Swedish personal finance startup Klarna and record labels.

The publishers building these networks all make an effort to set their creators apart from influencer networks, which became popular with publishers such as Condé Nast and The New York Times but now are facing increased scrutiny from marketers.

Instead of a big stable of photogenic people, the publishers say, these networks are comprised of skilled craftspeople whose work is well known to the publisher. Lavergne said Collective World’s members are interested in getting a book published through Thought Catalog; 9GAG attracts many of its creators through the Fun-Off, a long-running UGC competition that pits people against each other for a $100,000 payoff or are identified by its 20-person community engagement team.

They are also tightly integrated into the publishers’ sales infrastructures. Russell Schneider, 9GAG’s head of brand partnerships and business development, said his sales team puts forth these campaigns as a chief point of difference beyond its big reach on social channels.

To keep the talent in these networks engaged, publishers use money and perks. Collective World members are paid flat fees for the content they generate for campaigns, but they also get discounted access to Thought Catalog events and invitations to exclusive retreats it puts together only for Collective World members. Later this year, six top creators will be invited to an exclusive, six-person retreat in upstate New York.

At 9GAG, the selling points to creators include growing one’s personal brand and resources for more ambitious projects. It’s working with a handful of creators on original shows on Facebook Watch, Schneider said, and begun licensing creators’ content to brands, much the way a publisher such as Jukin might.

These kinds of campaigns may not have a place in every marketer’s media plan. But for the right kind of advertiser, either as an experimental investment or as a way to build something new, it could have a place.

“Brands that are born, post-advertising, they are very into this idea of leveraging high quality high composition networks,” said Michael Nicholas, the founder and chief digital officer of the agency Assembly. “They will use that for insight into how they can become important to that community [they’re trying to reach].”

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