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Last year, the Washington Post started selling “native ads” that let advertisers comment on op-ed pieces.
Versa Media Networks thinks they can improve on that. They’re pitching ads that are supposed to let anyone respond to any story a news site publishes, by attaching a message at the bottom of the text.
Versa calls these “Featured Perspectives,” and the idea is quite simple: If you’ve got something to say about something that, for instance, the Dallas Morning News is writing about, you can make sure you get to say it.
Even if that’s a news story about, say, abortion laws. Here’s the beginning of a recent Morning News story:
And here’s the Versa ad that starts directly at the end of the story, from Nuestro Texas, a “human rights campaign calling for reproductive health access for all women.”
Does that freak you out? I can sympathize. On the other hand, it’s 2014, and publishers need money, and where’s the harm in selling space to someone who has something to say about what you’ve written? At the very least, this compares favorably to many “special sections” that lots of august publications still create solely for the purpose of ad-collecting.
Versa CEO Keya Dannenbaum says she pitches the ads as a better “native” experience, since they’re related to what’s on the page, but quite clearly separate from the “real” content: “This eliminates the church-and-state tension,” she said.
Versa is a pivot. It started out two years ago as ElectNext, which was supposed to create widgets full of political information that newspapers could run alongside their news stories. That company raised $1.3 million from backers including Comcast Ventures* and Brooklyn Bridge Ventures.
Dannenbaum says that last year she figured out that news sites needed revenue more than they needed embeddable databases, so last summer she began selling ads (on a flat fee basis).
Now she has raised another $800,000 from Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network (which is separate from Omidyar’s high-profile news venture), the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Quotidian Ventures. So far she has 15 publishers using the network, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Real Clear Politics.
Meanwhile, the Post, which started selling its “Sponsored Views” product last summer, has temporarily shelved it, says PR rep Jennifer Lee. Lee says the ads are “getting reworked” but should reappear.
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* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is an investor in the company that owns this site.