Judging by industry buzz and press coverage in the past year, one would think that all publishers have embraced native advertising – ads that feel ”native” to the content — as an important monetization driver in the age of programmatic, data-driven marketing. Indeed, a significant portion of publishers have embraced native at such a rapid pace that it has surprised me. They’ve effected significant, vast changes to their infrastructures including wholesale redesigns of Web presences to dramatically cut back their display advertising units in order to accommodate native ad units. ESPN, for example, did a huge redesign and got rid of 90% of ad banners. Yahoo!, Forbes.com, and Facebook have also embraced the opportunity.
Many publishers have realized that if they don’t get in now, the competition will leave them behind. Beyond that, properties have taken notice that well-executed native campaigns unquestionably perform better in every conceivable way than typically staid (and increasingly tuned-out) display ads. Moreover, with the irreversible pivot to a mobile-first universe, publishers are increasingly deeming it mandatory to embrace native because display ads are even more ineffective within the constraints of smartphones. Consumers are starting to take preemptive action as evidenced by the recent ad blocker controversy stirred up by Apple’s recent iOS mobile software release.
But, as someone on the front lines of this movement, you might be surprised to hear, from my vantage point at least, another major reason why still many publishers haven’t embraced native ads,.
Is it a cost issue? Scalability? Native ads are increasingly scalable as several players including my company Bidtellect have entered the marketplace in recent years with platforms that enable native ads to be traded programmatically. So, no, those aren’t the primary factors. You might be surprised when I tell you what I believe is at the heart of many properties’ reticence.
It’s editorial pushback.
In this age of publisher content studios and branded content, the age-old church & state friction between editorial and ad sales would seem to be an antiquated notion. Unfortunately, I have to report that it still rears its head in a significant manner in many publisher organizations.
As someone who has run publishing entities over the past 20 plus years, I can tell you that that legacy lives on in many media companies and is holding many organizations back. Many editorial people still cling to the non-negotiable credo that the “written word can never be for sale.” These folks’ concerns stem from the belief that if readers ever thought for a second that the integrity of an editorial product was sold, the brand would be irreparably tarnished. There is definitely a generational element in terms of this editorial resistance. Much of it is vestigial but it has filtered into the mindsets of newsroom millennials as well, who one major publisher told me “scream the loudest about ‘selling out.’”
With all due respect to these dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists (most prevalent in those media companies transitioning from old to new media), I disagree that it’s the slippery slope that they claim it to be. In today’s on-demand media world, great content – from any source, including paid content – is embraced by consumers. The fact of the matter is that effective native advertising can co-exist with or even enhance traditional editorial content. They are not mutually exclusive.
These editorial naysayers are in my opinion conflating the danger of jettisoning editorial integrity. To begin with, consumers aren’t nearly as precious about editorial and advertising separation as they used to be, as witnessed by the tremendous successes of such disparate properties as Buzzfeed, Forbes and the New York Times. In addition, a pivotal, fundamental change sweeping the marketing business is how brands are embracing the notion of “brand as publisher” by committing to great content creation as much as ad creation. Consumers, for the most part, have bought in. It doesn’t matter to them whether the editorial department created it or someone at Unilever did, as long as it’s good.
If you analyze the history of publishing, this seemingly newfound close alignment between editorial and advertising has actually existed in a practical, if not formalized, sense for decades. During my days at Ziff-Davis, I can recall my sales guys coaching advertisers on how to write ads in the style and sensibility of the editorial to be the most effective. If a magazine’s editorial heritage is steeped in product reviews and you are selling printers, it would be wise to follow that advice. More recently, Yahoo! chief Marissa Mayer accurately compared Vogue’s editorial model with the native ad model. If you are a fashion house advertising in Vogue, you want to make your ad look as much like the content as possible.
The dichotomy of fear is a fascinating thing. On the one hand, it can inspire positive forward movement; on the other, it can paralyze people. Publishing companies have a choice as to how they want to let it affect them. As always, consumers are showing the way forward by embracing effective native advertising, which leaves publishers with a wonderful opportunity to fully exploit the monetization potential of their properties.
Everyone fast forwards thru advertising, thank you tivo for inventing the commercial skip. We thumb through a magazine or newspaper (whats that?) to get the real content – to read the stories. And we do the same thing online, every website since the 90s has looked the same, until recently, but I’ll get to that in a minute. At the edges of every site are banner ads – the leaderboard a the top, rectangle and/or large rectangle to the right of the page content. And because every site used this same basic structure, we became conditioned to quickly scroll down the page to the real content, and ignore the right side of the page(s) because it is full of useless ads, offering products and services that take the readers attention away from the content they are looking to discover on the site anyway. 50% off, free shipping, wait a second, is that the same ad for Zappos again, blah, blah, blah. I’m trying to read something compelling in the 5 mins I have to myself today, they cry out. And don’t get me started on the digital video world – forced to watch the TV spots TiVo so rightfully enabled us to skip are repurposed for online use, only now the video ad, aka pre-roll is longer than the actual video content you wanted to watch. But I’ll save that for another diatribe.
What if you could offer your audience something they actually liked, something that you knew a lot about and something that offered value?
So get back to the basics of what you are trying to do with advertising – sell stuff. How are you going to do that – at the core of advertising we are trying to entertain, educate or inspire the audience into taking action (aka buy stuff). If you can offer something of value, speak from a place of authenticity and authority, its human nature to be compelled to reciprocate.
Take a hard look at where you are advertising. Not just the sites where you run but where on those sites are the ads. The reason you have a laughable CTR is because you are accepting suckage as a benchmark. No one is clicking on your ads. They are doing exactly what you do when you are online, ignoring anything on the top of the site and/or to the right. Is it the location of the ads? Is it the ads themselves? These things also lend themselves to the topics of fraud and cookie stuffing, viewability and even adblocking. But for today’s thoughts, let’s stick to location and content.
In the world of publishing, for years, ad sales teams would try to persuade the editorial team to write a little something about their advertisers. To put them in a positive light so readers would think, rather would consider something differently about the brand. Historically editorial teams would raise their fists in a fit a rage, church and state they’d say, the editorial is based on research, facts, fact-checking and journalistic integrity. All things an advertiser doesn’t necessarily think about when trying to sell something. But today things are different; the REI catalog offers articles that tell of tales of adventure. Why do they do this? So their readers will identify with the hero in the story, who happens to be wearing REI clothes, which therefore makes it so that if you buy REI clothes, you too can be a hero. Get it. But its not just happened with catalogs, its happening online, advertisers are becoming publishers. My favorite example is eBay, Have you seen the publisher-like content on eBay lately? They get it. People will spend more time on their site when there’s content beyond the auctioned off used ski parka from the garage cleanout.
I mentioned earlier, until recently , pretty much every site has looked the same. That is until, Facebook’s introduction to the in-feed ad. This new design put the “ad” front and center of the reader as they were catching up with their friends and family. It was impossible not to see the ads. And because Facebook was using your profile data to target the ads to you, more often than not, users were interested, at least according to their profile information, in the ads. The revenues from these new ads were public knowledge and it wasn’t long before other publishers were redesigning their sites to include an in-feed ad format. And this was just the beginning of publisher’s opening up various “editorial” areas on their sites to offer new inventory slots of advertisers. Turns out when you have ads that look and feel like editorial, with compelling headlines versus a brand logo, it allows the reader the opportunity to decide, just like with any other headline, whether they want to find out more. And guess what brands? You have “stories” to tell, so tell them, inspire, entertain and educate your audiences into action.
You don’t need a top 10 list or a cat video to run a successful native campaign. You don’t even need to have a robust content distribution strategy to achieve campaign goals.
All you need are 2 key ingredients – the ad and a landing page. Where should you drive the audience? That’s easy, there are 3 kinds of content types; 1st party content, 3rd party content and custom content. And pretty much every brands has each one of these. Let’s break it down; you can look in the mirror in many cases, what are you already doing via email, company videos on youtube, on your company blog or on social media? But let’s say you don’t like that content, have there been any interviews either on TV , in print or online that can be reused to spread the good word about your brand? And what about all the time, money, energy, and efforts that went into the publisher’s direct buy or custom content piece or sponsorship you did and plan to do? These are all great examples of content that can be used effectively in a native ad campaign.
What about metrics? What if you could look to other metrics, besides CTR to prove consumer interest? Look at post-click metrics — on-site metrics, like time spent and pages views and what if you could optimize to these metrics to create a meaningful campaign for your brand.
So how do you not suck at native advertising, you test and you optimize? Test different kinds of content, test different kinds of headlines, test your imagery. Every marketer knows about A/B testing, Native is the opportunity to A/B test on steroids.
When it comes to making optimizations to most forms of digital advertisements, most analysts look at the composition of users, publisher-side supply, and device type. When it comes to native advertising, Bidtellect has found through running many campaigns and by pulling many levers that more than any other “lever”, creative plays a significant part in effectively optimizing a campaign. Users who in the past wouldn’t engage with standard display advertising can now be influenced through creative execution in a more meaningful way than via a traditional banner ad. Since native looks and feels like the content on the page, the creative execution plays a huge role in increasing click through rates and reaching those users who previously weren’t influenced by display advertising. For marketers, being able to reach a previously untapped customer is highly valuable and helps prove the worth of investing ad dollars into native advertising. At Bidtellect, we’ve found: A clear unbranded engaging image will perform 2x-5x better than the same image and messaging of a standard display ad. Bidtellect has also found the longer the headline the better. The more you speak to your audience the higher your performance. Native headlines < 45 characters perform at half the rate vs. an ad with 50-55 characters.
Another key component to making optimizations whether it is to increase click through rates to your landing page or to capture lower funnel conversions – is utilizing our dynamic pricing functionality. Dynamic pricing allows for the technology and analysts to effectively buy inventory that is more likely to convert at a higher rate and drive increased engagement with the ads and as a result, the brands we represent. A great example of optimizing your ads via max pricing can be illustrated as follows, if you are currently buying on a flat CPC, let say in this case $.30, a $3k campaign will get the client 16.6k clicks BUT if you buy on a max CPC of $.50, it allows the campaign to bid more efficiently for better performing inventory but also bid less than $.30 for less competitive inventory. This essentially allows for a real marketplace vs. being locked in at a fixed rate CPC that can prevent your campaign from winning higher priced inventory that also converts at a higher rate. Theoretically you might be able to get those 16.6k in clicks for $.20 which gives you an additional savings of $1.6k that can be used to buy better performing supply at $.40, $.45, $.50 etc.
When it’s all said and done – every lever matters and through the Bidtellect RTB Exchange clients can achieve higher optimizations across all formats – creative, price, device, supply, user, location and more.