CMO Impact
Leading Digital Transformation

A New Kind of Content Discovery: Talking “Reverse Search Engines” With Taboola’s Adam Singolda

January 02, 2018

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Adam Singolda, CEO and Founder, Taboola

Adam Singolda, CEO and Founder, Taboola

One of my highlights for 2017 was most certainly attending the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France.

There, at the world’s largest festival and awards for creative and marketing communications, entertainment, design and tech industries, I had the opportunity to meet Adam Singolda, Foundation and CEO of Taboola.

Taboola’s discovery platform – also known as a “search engine in reverse” delivers personalized recommendations to over one billion users every month, on many of the web’s most innovative and highly-visited websites.

See what Singolda has to say about this new type of content discovery, his predictions for storytelling opportunities for brands, and ensuring brand security.  

So what led you to start Taboola?

Taboola is the first job I’ve ever had. I spent nearly seven years in the Israeli army and was living with my parents after I was discharged. As I was trying to relax, I couldn’t find anything to watch on TV one day and thought, “I should not be looking for TV shows, TV shows should be looking for me.”

Search engines changed our lives because if you knew what you are looking for, you could find it. You could get medical information, entertainment, products and more – if only you knew what you wanted, and how to type it. But what happens when you have no idea what to look for?

When founding Taboola, our vision was to build a sort of search engine, but in reverse. Instead of expecting people to find information, information should find people wherever they may be. I believe that our kids will live in a world that is completely personalized; we are the last generation that will be spending time zapping through channels, or looking for what to read in the morning.

With all the challenges with the explosion of content, how would you address content discovery success?

I think the whole growth of paid recommendations initially came as a a reaction to the nearly $100 billion advertising industry of banners and ads that people stopped reacting to (when is the last time you clicked on a banner ad?), with user behavior shifting towards value and relationship building.

People now want to know about the brand, why they do what they do, and what value they can create in an invitation-based fashion, which means people don’t want to be bombarded with promotions, but rather they want to invite brands and experiences into their daily experiences.

That concept of recommending things to people was already a huge success in the world of commerce: just look at Amazon, and even Netflix with the $1M Prize.

As you look into the future, now with Deep Learning technology, and a huge amount of data, there is actually a way to look at tens of millions of pieces of content, products and videos, and choose the most relevant one that a person may like and never knew existed. To CMOs and brands, this is a massive opportunity – as all brands in the world either want to be discovered for the first time, or have something they want to be rediscovered.

Lastly, one other thing that happened was the ability for brands to attach a business model into this new industry and measure what happens when someone reads a story – how many of them subscribe, what’s the lifetime value, what’s the acquisition cost – and essentially, compare the value of putting a dollar in “discovery” versus “search.”

What are the biggest changes coming in digital that CMOs need to be aware of? What will 2018 and 2019 look like, and how can CMOs be prepared for success?

I think there are three major things that we’re going to see over the next two years.

  1. Video: In the past 10 years, there was a scarcity of premium video inventory. You couldn’t easily spend $50M even if you wanted to. This forced marketers to spend on two main channels: YouTube and television, and more recently Facebook and Snapchat (but not as much as the first two). I believe that in the next 2-3 years, premium publishers will completely transform, becoming massive video broadcast sites that together will be a lot bigger than YouTube. One advantage if this was to happen is that brands will be able to easily place video ads adjacent to premium content on sites that people are passionate about, all around the open web.
  2. Storytelling and ROI: Traditional brands have a lot to learn from emerging brands that were able to drive meaningful growth and gain millions of users by providing value, engaging stories, and using data effectively. Just look at companies like Casper, or Dollar Shave Club.
  3. Going Global: There will be even bigger global opportunity in the future. As an example, just in India, nearly half a billion people are about to join the internet via their phone; and in Australia, 50% of the advertising spend is already digital and growing. I think we will see a lot of companies developing a more global approach in the coming years.

What are the top challenges you face or think about when ensuring a brand’s safety? More importantly, what are the 2-3 things CMOs need to do to ensure that brand safety?

To start, I think one of the biggest challenges is that there is a lack of a clear definition of “brand safety.” We’ve written a few blog posts that address this, as well as the dangers in calling everything “fake news,” to better help brands understand where there is a gray area and how to determine what content is safe and what is not.

I think an industry dialogue will ultimately benefit brands, publishers, journalism, readers and the open web in a meaningful way. There is an opportunity to put sponsored messages adjacent to premium and safe environments where brands have choice on where their content lives. Think of the safety of buying a Times Square ad, where you know exactly where it’s placed – only on a publisher whose name everybody knows.

I actually think that the whole saga around brand safety earlier this year can (and should) benefit the open web. While there is less clarity about what your ad is going to show up next to in a social environment, in the open web you can be quite specific.

How has the focus on viewability helped or hurt digital marketers? Any suggestions for addressing the issues and optimizing?

Marketers were abused by companies that rendered ads at the bottom of the page, and charged a premium for those pixel size video players. Horrible. While the ads may have been targeted to the right audience, a lot of the time they weren’t viewed, even though brands paid that premium. Rightfully so, brands sought a viewability guarantee. But then, many ad formats emerged in response, and were placed at the top of the fold, which was sometimes intrusive to the user and ruined their experience – which is not what brands wanted either.

I believe there is a way for marketers to spend money and get the ROI that they want, and deserve.

The conversation needs to transition from viewability to engagement or value: meaning every marketer and every campaign has a different goal, and that goal should be measured, presented and optimized for. In the end, a video view should translate into a click, a signup, subscription, and/or a brand awareness survey that can assure brands that people actually saw the video you thought they saw – or something, just something someone can measure and optimize for.

What is the single biggest piece of advice or “go to” CMO-worthy learning you’ve acquired over the last year, as you’re leading company-wide digital transformation?

I encourage everyone to get familiar with technology companies, say “no” to things that can’t move the needle, and take risks on things that can be meaningful to the business and diversify the existing dependencies we might have in our business. There is a world where you can scale quality, safe and performing budgets outside of search and social.

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