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Native advertising is one of the most popular buzzwords being tossed around the industry right now. But it’s surrounded by a fog of abstractness and plenty of uncertainty. Is it a strategy or a tactic? Is it something truly new and unique or is it just advertorial rebranded?
PluggedIn BD brought together publishers, advertisers, and brands for an open discussion in hopes of bringing some clarity to the idea of native. It was moderated by Rich Ullman and these are the questions we were able to (sort of) answer.
Why native advertising?
The cynics will say that native is just a way to squeeze more money out of agencies. Alright, so there may be some truth in that, but it also comes from a shift in the dynamics of consumers (specifically, millennials). Millennials hate commercial messaging. Consumers are widening the moat around themselves, and now we are finding a way to build a bridge to get to them. Native is a result of realizing that if we really want to communicate with people, we need to serve them something they’re actually interested in.
There are a whole bunch of companies (especially in the finance and pharma industries) with great, valuable content that doesn’t just push their products. Publishers want that content to bring value to their readers. One seamless way to do that is with native advertising. Native can truly benefit the user, with the potential to create a much better experience than standard display ads. No one is looking to the right rail anymore, so by moving content to the center, we’re getting people to pay attention. Our mission is to build something better than the banner.
At the end of the day, native is still advertising, but the distinction is that we’re putting ads in a place that feels right. We’re putting round pegs in round holes, rather than trying to shove something in where it doesn’t belong. (Or we should be, at least.)
What’s the relationship between publishers, agencies, and brands?
Brands know how to make products. Agencies know how to create campaigns. Publishers know how to create content. Brands understand value, publishers understand audience, and agencies…well, agencies understand how to serve their brands, and that’s about it.
The purpose of an ad (even native ads) is to sell. But as a publisher, you’re always going to be most interested in delighting your readers so that they continue to come back to your publication. There lies the real tension between brands and publishers when it comes to native.
What happens when native is done right?
People are not exactly rioting in the streets for native advertising. Yet while consumers may not love it, they certainly find it less offensive. The blowback comes when it’s not done correctly and we try to pass off one thing as another. AtThe Guardian, the litmus test is this: Would an average user, coming to the publication for the first time, be able to tell the difference? If readers can’t tell if something is brought to them by an advertiser or by the newsroom, that’s a problem. Our job is to not confuse consumers. It’s to the publisher’s, advertiser’s, and reader’s benefit to clearly signpost branded or sponsored content.
When AT&T approached The Guardian wanting to be aligned with small business, the publication gladly accepted a blank check to start a small business channel. Now it could hire an editor and four contributors, creating something it had always wanted to do. The problem (for the brand) is that with this type of model, not everything the newsroom produces is going to be on brief. There’s a perilous highwire you walk when you leverage a social organic footprint on one side but have to balance that with less control.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that publishers are not able to really push back when they don’t agree with the messaging. They’re lending their voice (or, in the case of VICE, their “swagger”) and must give up some control on their end as well.Ideally, publishers will know what their audience is truly interested in and only partner with brands who share those values. There needs to be an alignment. We know that people are more willing to buy things from companies with values they agree with, and we’re finding ways to tell those stories with native advertising.
How can we make content better at scale?
Let’s think about scale on a spectrum. On one side, we have something that scales very easily like a banner ad. One the other, we have something like sponsored content that we work on hand-in-hand with a publisher so it’s as perfect as possible for the particular environment (but a bit more tenuous in terms of scale). The question we should be asking is: How do we find balance between the two sides?
Much of this comes down to what that content is worth. Does it make sense as an advertiser to do an upteenth sponsored cat listicle on Buzzfeed? Especially if you’re not adding much, just slapping a logo onto something that would be a piece of editorial content to begin with. Give some real thought about where on that spectrum you want to be. There’s a trade-off. If you want to do something that scales quite elegantly, you must understand that it can’t match what the publisher can do.
Dare we use the p-word? Programmatic. In order for native to be successful, it has to be scalable. Agencies are scratching their heads in terms of what models to use for this native programming. But that brings us to another hurdle: The idea of standardization and native seem contradictory. Once we have true standards, it ceases to be native and instead becomes an ad unit.
When we think about scale, that brings us to the question of how to quantify the value of native beyond just access. You can move a lot of people on the internet fairly easily, but is it really valuable to a brand to have thousands of unqualified eyeballs on a piece? Tons of traffic is the best way to achieve scale, but is that the best way to achieve value? One method is to start bringing micro-publishers into the mix. Sure, big publishers may have the reach and quality content, but their voice and audience may not align. You can break through that and get your message out with these micro-publishers.
What results really matter?
There can also be tension between what you think an advertiser should be evaluating as a KPI and what they’re actually evaluating. Maybe it’s impressions, maybe it’s qualified leads. We often find that advertiser KPIs don’t change from a banner ad to a piece of native content. We need to figure out the missing ingredient.
If we’re looking at it from the publisher and marketer side, it’s an efficiency game. Publishers need to make money and marketers are only going to get on board if they can scale it efficiently. This content needs to be both engaging and profitable. Some of that comes down to the right targeting. For publishers, there’s also a question of standards. Readers should be able to say, “I came to The Huffington Post and got exactly what I expected, even if it was an ad.”
Vanity comes into play too. We want to get written up in the trades, get awards, and make the CMO look good. If you took native advertising on its own and separated it from your display and programmatic business, most publishers would not have a profitable enterprise on that alone. I a sense, native content is really just a “piece of cool.” But it’s also about greater levels of engagement. We’re looking at video completion rates (rather than just clicks). We’re thinking of engagement as a metric. That could be any number of things (likes, retweets, comments) and goes beyond CPC and CPM. The challenge arises when brands try to put a dollar number on that. What is an engagement worth? We need to figure out what matters and then educate buyers on what the metrics should be. Clients need to understand what success looks like.
What can we expect from the future of native advertising?
Our industry experts had some big predictions for this space over the next 12 to 18 months:
TripleLift: Ari Lewine, Co-founder
Sverve: Rohit Vashisht , CEO
Bustle: Kai Hsing, SVP Marketing and Operations
Taboola: Paul Jelinek, VP BD
my6sense: Mark Coleman, SVP Sales
Huffington Post: Kirsten Cieslar, Senior Strategy and Development Manager – HuffPost Live & HuffPost Global
Investopedia: David Siegel, CEO
DailyVoice: Carll Tucker, CEO
Guardian News & Media: Jason Kleinman, SVP Guardian Labs and Brand Partnerships
UpWorthy: Patty Carnevale, Director of Account Strategy & Development
PowerInbox: Jeff Kupietzky, CEO
Outbrain: Asaf Hochman, Sr. Director of Product