The NYT is doing something smart by using Twitter trends to target ads

We spend a fair amount of time criticizing traditional media players like the New York Times for not being innovative enough, relying too much on paywalls for revenue growth, and other perceived failings — so I think it’s only fair when we recognize things that they do that are innovative and interesting, and a new ad product it has launched definitely falls into that category. In a nutshell, the newspaper is selling advertisers the ability to target their ads based on whether a story is trending on Twitter.

Michael Zimbalist heads up the NYT’s research and development arm, and described the new advertising venture — which is called “Sparking Stories” — at a conference on big data put on recently by According to Zimbalist, it came out of a new unit of the NYT R&D lab that is designed to commercialize the research done there, and is based on a social-media analytics tool the Times has been using for some time called Cascade.


In a nutshell, Cascade is the newspaper’s in-house version of Twitter’s trending topics: it allows the NYT to track which stories on its site are being shared heavily through social media, information that is used by both editors and reporters as a way of seeing how much traction their content is getting with readers. The new “Sparking Stories” advertising product gives advertisers the ability to place their ads inside those specific stories. Said Zimbalist:

“We developed this tool that lets us see what stories are trending, so now we’ve created an API that lets our ad server talk to this tool, and we’ve created an ad product called Sparking Stories, where an advertiser can come in and buy a package of stories that are trending right now on Twitter, irrespective of section or context or topic — just the stories that are really breaking through right now on social media.”

New York Times Building Day

Zimbalist notes in his interview with an analyst from Forrester Research that the original head of the NYT’s digital arm, Martin Nisenholtz, had an advertising background before he joined the newspaper, and says he “realized the promise of this medium was going to be targeting based on data,” something the paper has always done through fairly traditional means: namely, separating registered readers based on gender, zip code, age, etc.

But what Spark allows the newspaper to do is much more interesting: it focuses not on age or gender or zip code — things that may be irrelevant (or at least less relevant) for some advertisers who want to target specific content topics — and instead focuses on what content is being talked about the most. Although Zimbalist doesn’t say what the paper charges for this product, that ability could theoretically be much more valuable than a standard display ad.

At a time when the advertising business is undergoing a tremendous upheaval, forcing media companies to experiment with everything from affiliate links to sponsored content, it’s nice to see the Times focusing on how it can use technology and data to push traditional advertising into the future a little bit. (Note: We are going to be discussing new forms of monetization for content at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17).

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / noporn and Flickr user Robert Scoble