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Native ads are getting a direct-response makeover

Digiday

Native advertising is often used by publishers as a way out of being held to the direct-response metrics that have long been associated with banner ads.

Native was supposed to be a premium ad format that would bolster falling digital CPMs, and it has mainly been viewed as an image-building format. But it was only a matter of time before advertisers would start to demand more than just a lift in awareness or improved reputation and ask for ads that directly drive sales or leads.

Case in point: this ad for The New York Times that’s running on Mashable. The ad has a direct come-on to new digital customers, with a “subscribe” button that’s prominently placed to the right of its branded article. It’s part of a month-long campaign the Times is running on Mashable to drive audience growth.

 Native ads are getting a direct response makeover

The practice is more established among B2B marketers, for whom the format is well suited for white-paper downloads and webinar signups. Lexis Nexis, for example, used this ad on Law.com to drum up business for its MedMal navigator product. But consumer publishers are increasingly hearing requests for native ads to include calls to action.

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A buyer’s view on native advertising and transparency

Digiday

Attitudes toward native advertising in its various forms continue to divide the industry. Some view it as publishing’s savior while others see it as the final nail in journalism’s coffin.

Nick Cohen is managing partner and head of content at MediaCom U.K. and oversees content-led campaigns for its clients, some of which include GlaxoSmithKline, Volkswagen and Procter & Gamble. Cohen gave Digiday his view on the native advertising debate, how it’s being managed, and he told us what he made of that now-infamous John Oliver skit lambasting the tactic.

What did you make of John Oliver’s critique of native advertising?

I thought it was very funny. He very astutely highlighted the shoddy end of it. It’s easy for people in advertising to lose a sense of perspective. It’s right that we constantly question things.

What’s your take on native?
Personally, I think the term “native advertising” has been a bit unhelpful. It confuses more than it illuminates. We don’t really actively go out to clients and say, “You should be doing native advertising.” We just talk about content and how it can be used effectively to meet their business objectives.

Which campaigns have you been impressed by recently?
There was a nice example from MediaCom, which I don’t take credit for, where Audi and the Telegraph filmed a race to Le Mans. It’s great content and one of those where it makes sense for the publisher and for the brand: It’s not a square peg for a round hole.

All brands need to be thinking about how they can use content — be it on their website and social channels, through their physical distribution channels or through sponsored content with an external media brand. And there are ways of doing it well, and there’s ways of doing it badly. Focus on doing something everybody would be proud of.

Some publishers draw on journalists to help write ads, others have a completely separate studio and some let brands publish through a self-service model. What are the most typical approaches to sponsored content you’re seeing?
It’s mostly a studio model which we see, where it’s sales people involved in the process of pitching. I think for most publishers there’s still a separation between the sales and those on the editorial side, though as part of a commercial piece of work publishers might commission someone who also writes on the editorial side. For the likes of the Guardian and The Telegraph, who are very active in this space, I’d say the separate-studio model prevails. The likes of BuzzFeed, who we’ve been doing work with recently, use a separate team for commercial content too. AOL and the Huffington Post say that divide needs to evolve, but I think there is a realization that you do need to maintain a separation between the two things.

How overtly should advertorial be labeled as advertising?
If you’re reading a commissioned by-lined piece and it’s written by someone who is CEO of company X, you’d see that and understand that someone’s coming from a particular perspective and is coming from their specialist, informed opinion, rather than offering a completely unbiased perspective. As long as it’s properly labeled and transparent, I don’t think there’s a problem with it.

We always advise our clients that there’s a shared interest between the brand and the publisher, and those are typically around three areas of transparency, relevancy and quality. In terms of transparency, if you’re creating content that’s similar to other work produced by a publisher, you want it to be clearly labeled so it doesn’t look like you’re being underhanded. There’s also the need to abide by the Advertising Standards Authority guidelines, which has been pretty clear about this stuff. It’s not in the brand’s or the publishers’ interest to mislead people.

The content has to be relevant to the brand and something they’re legitimately able to talk about. It’s got to be relevant to the audience, and it has to be relevant to the publisher’s agenda. The last point is quality: making sure anything produced by a brand is as good a quality as what would be produced for that site anyway.

Have some publishers gone outside their comfort zone when it comes to posting commercial content on social channels?
If for whatever reason a publisher feels like they shouldn’t promote something, there are plenty of other ways of doing that through content-amplification services. It’s about having a really clear, honest discussion with the advertiser. If a publisher feels bad about doing something, they shouldn’t do it. Be clear with the client and the agency, and don’t do something you’re not completely comfortable with when it comes to branded content.

The backstory on native advertising

Columbia Journalism Review

Back in antiquity (five years ago), when I ran a popular Web 1.0 content site called Beliefnet, we used to cockily predict to investors that our advertising rates were going to rise every year. We knew this because the prestigious market researchers told us so. And their logic seemed flawless: More and more ad dollars were going to shift online, and improved ad targeting technology would improve CPMs.

We all know why the first trend didn’t lead to a windfall for publishers (the money did move online, but most of it went to Google, Facebook, and Yahoo). But why haven’t ad tech improvements provide a windfall for most content publishers?

The answer is a revolution in how advertisers view the importance of what content is surrounding their ads. Many advertisers now care more about who sees their ads than where they appear. Context no longer matters so much.

That poses huge problems for publishers who invest in costly forms of content creation (sometimes known as “reporting”)—and it partly explains the escalating acceptance of native advertising. Debates have intensified about the pros and cons of native—a study this month showed that native risks harming publishers’ brands—but it’s worth understanding how publishers got into this position.

For most of modern media history, advertisers spent with a media outlet for two reasons: to reach a certain type of person and to have their brand rub up against the publication’s brand.

For the first goal, it was an inexact science. If your pimple cream wanted to reach, say, 17-year-old teenage girls, you’d advertise in Mademoiselle. If your local hardware store wanted to reach middle-age guys in town, you advertised in the newspaper. Truth is, it was pretty inefficient for advertisers, since they were also paying for the many other readers of the newspapers who didn’t care much about lawn care. But it was the only option advertisers had.

The publications could tell themselves that the advertisers wanted to be alongside the great content, but really advertisers were mostly viewing context as a proxy for reach.

Of course the internet blew up that formula: Advertisers can target their ads to particular demographics with precision.

At first, it seemed this targeting might be fine for publishers. For instance, in the early days of Beliefnet, we could charge pharmaceutical advertisers more for the health section than the religion section of the site on the assumption that the readers of health content were more sickly. And we could target health-content readers even as they went to other parts of the site. Sure, it created perverse incentives for us to produce twice as much health content as religion content, which was awkward since we were, well, a religion website. But it worked for a while.

Then technology evolved further in a way that proved harmful to publishers.

Google got better and better at providing advertisers the audience they wanted based on search results, obviating the need for many advertisers to place banners on websites. Facebook did the same.

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How readers feel about native ads in 4 charts

Digiday

Publishers may be having a love affair with sponsored content, but what about their readers? Three recent studies provide new insights into how readers perceive the native ads that publishers are so enamored of. Turns out, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

Here are four charts that describe reader sentiment about sponsored content.

Native-ad effectiveness depends on focus of the site
The IAB and Edelman Berland’s July 2014 report on sponsored content shows engagement is higher on business- and entertainment-oriented sites than on general news sites.

The survey of 5000 U.S. Web users found that only 27 percent of general news readers agree that sponsored content adds value to their experience of a site, versus the average of 38 percent for overall respondents across categories.

General news readers consistently saw sponsored content as less favorable and less likely to result in positive brand uplift for the brand or publisher, as this chart shows.

 How readers feel about native ads in 4 charts

Reputations count on both sides
Native-ad effectiveness depends on the reputation of both the brand and publisher. The IAB’s report shows news publishers see more engagement when they work with familiar and trusted brands. The corollary to this, however, is that native advertising is less effective for generating new brand awareness.

The chart below breaks down which factors are most relevant to readers of different types of content when it comes to native advertising — whether the brand is conveying important information, whether the brand is an authority or whether the brand is simply trustworthy. Turns out, content is still king.


 How readers feel about native ads in 4 charts

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Sponsored content is the holy grail of digital publishing. But does it work?

Fortune

People feel deceived when they realize an article or video is sponsored by a brand, and believe it hurts the digital publisher’s credibility, according to a study.

In recent years, a debate has raged on among publishing and advertising industry insiders over “sponsored content”—more recently called “native advertising” and once known as “advertorial”—the sort of advertising that looks very much like editorial content but is, in fact, directly paid for by an advertiser.

The approach has been embraced by newer digital ventures such as BuzzFeed and new digital efforts for very old publications like Forbes and The Atlantic. Industry peers watched and discussed: Is it deceptive? Is it ethical? Does it even work?

Whatever the answers, there’s no denying that the approach is suddenly in vogue. Storied news organizations such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times  NYT  have since taken the native plunge. (Fortune has also decided to engage in the practice.) Last year, advertisers spent $2.4 billion on native ads, a 77% jump over 2012. That same year, the Post’s CRO called native ads “a spiritual journey.” (Really.)

Native ads may be popular with publishers, but consumers are not in love, according to a new survey conducted by Contently, a startup that connects brands with writers who then create sponsored content. (Yes, the survey runs counter to Contently’s mission; more on that in a moment.)

Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents said they felt deceived when they realized an article or video was sponsored by a brand. Just over half said they didn’t trust branded content, regardless of what it was about. Fifty-nine percent said they believe that a news site that runs sponsored content loses credibility—although they also said they view branded content as slightly more trustworthy than Fox News.

Publishers and advertisers tend to respond to concerns of confusion or credibility with the same response: “It’s clearly labeled!” Simple disclosure solves all conflicts, they suggest. Readers are smart enough to figure it out, and critics don’t give them enough credit.

To wit: “They get the drill,” said Lewis Dvorkin, the True/Slant founder who led the massive expansion of the Forbes contributor network and its sponsored BrandVoice program, at an event last year. Likewise, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has said the native ads on the newspaper’s website are clearly labeled to ensure there are no doubts about “what is Times journalism and what is advertising.”

But Contently’s findings, based on a survey of 542 people, throw cold water on the notion that readers “get the drill.” According to the study, readers are confused about what “sponsored” even means: When they see the label “Sponsored Content,” half of them think it means that a sponsor paid for and influenced the article. One-fifth of them think the content is produced by an editorial team but “a sponsor’s money allowed it to happen.” Eighteen percent think the sponsor merely paid for its name to be next to the article. Thirteen percent think it means the sponsor actually wrote the article. Even the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is perplexed; a panel on native advertising last year “raised more questions than it answered.”

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Brandnew’s Back-Door Approach To Native Advertising

AdExchanger

Everyone wants to get into native advertising, yet everyone has a different definition as to what exactly that entails. Social media sites have it easy because any sponsored post, automatically blending into the site design, can hitch a ride on the native bandwagon.

But while Facebook and Twitter are the current hotbeds of social advertising, Instagram and Pinterest are coming up fast. But unlike Facebook and Twitter, advertising around the two image-based interfaces revolves heavily around influencers, instead of traditional paid placements.

Berlin-based Brandnew IO, which began in early 2013, provides a platform and service designed to help brands reach influencers on Instagram and Pinterest.

“At that time we saw that more and more brands and agencies wanted to reach new consumers,” said Brandnew CEO Francis Trapp. “They wanted to target groups on platforms like Instagram and at the time there was no central way of doing it.”

At first, Brandnew identified influencers manually but it soon developed a platform designed to automate the process and handles campaign tracking. That being said, Brandnew’s staff still needs to vet the influencers for quality.

“We check to ensure these influential people are worth taking onboard,” Trapp said. “We determine if they have big enough accounts and real followers as opposed to fake followers. We ensure that the quality of their content is suitable for our brands.”

Trapp spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Brandnew pushes brand-produced images out for influencers to share. Is that actually native advertising?

FRANCIS TRAPP: We see ourselves as a company that connects brands with influential people. Obviously we also need to consult brands on what works for them on these social channels. Sometimes our clients have a very clear idea of what the campaign should look like, but sometimes they have no idea.

One thing we have to ensure is that the campaigns we run are interesting for all parties involved. On one hand this means that the client should run a campaign with an image that really represents their brand. On the other hand, the influencer should make sure that image is distributed to the right accounts. Our influencers always tell us that they want to run campaigns that don’t annoy their followers. That’s the main hurdle to native advertising.

Sometimes we see that certain clients of ours view Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as social media and nothing more. We are convinced that each platform has a unique DNA, and the way people use each one differs. Typical demographics of Pinterest users differ from Instagram users. This has to be reflected in the campaigns we launch for the brands we represent.

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Is Google getting into the native-advertising game?

Digiday

Google may be on the verge of cracking the code to that elusive grail of native advertising: doing it at massive scale. The search giant is said to be running a small test with publishers of a widget that would include links to content and ads.

In so doing, Google could pose a considerable threat to widgets like Outbrain and Taboola that already live on hundreds of publishers’ sites under banners like “Promoted Stories” and “From the Web.”

Such content-recommendation engines have had their issues. They’ve been blasted for surfacing content that’s low quality or incongruent with the host site, and peddling misleading ads that can undermine readers’ trust. That has in turn driven the emergence of an alternate content exchanges that are ad-free and profess to only circulate premium content.

What’s more, publishers expose themselves to risks by putting such third-party plug-ins on their site, as Reuters learned last week when its Taboola widget was hacked.

But publishers continue to use them because they’re also an easy way for them to recycle their content with the goal of keeping people on their site longer. It’s easy money, too: Publishers get paid each time someone clicks on an external content or ad link in the widget.

For Google, the opportunity seems clear. Publishers need to make their websites work harder, especially as online CPMs decline and readers shift to the smaller mobile screen and increasingly come to websites through side doors, behavior that is associated with lower engagement. There’s a big land grab underway by ad tech companies that are trying to marry native advertising and scale.

But Google already has longstanding relationships with publishers through AdSense, and a content recommendation powered by Google’s extensive data and analytics would be a natural way for the search behemoth to expand its grip on publishers’ sites. (Google declined to comment for this story.)

“They have a huge amount of history,” said Rebecca Lieb, analyst at Altimeter. “They can slice and dice it a lot of ways.”

Not only that, Google is good at rooting out bad links and has its own content, on YouTube, that it could push out through a widget, speculated Steve Rubel, chief content strategist at Edelman. “Think about the retargeting options. A content-recommendation-slash-native-advertising offer would be low-hanging fruit for Google.”

A content exchange widget would fit squarely in Google’s efforts to get into other aspects of the digital business and expand its presence on publishers’ sites. It’s reportedly already developing a content management system for media companies. If Google can come up with a better way to surface content that solves the problems of existing link exchange plug-ins, it could have a win.

Still, Google’s success isn’t assured. It would have to offer publishers a better deal than they’re getting from other third parties. And, nobody wants to be too dependent on any one vendor. Many publishers already have multi-year agreements with Outbrain, for one, and might be reluctant to add another widget to their already-crowded sites.

“Publishers,” said Rubel, “don’t want all their eggs in one basket.”

Native Advertising Test: Does Your Campaign Make The Cut?

Media Post

For all the buzz about native advertising, the term lacks a real definition. Related article links, promoted post advertising on social channels and even display ads tucked in between paragraphs of a blog post have all been umbrellaed under the term “native advertising.”

It’s time for the industry to solidify a single definition for native advertising, before this powerful form of advertising slips deeper into marketing buzzword territory. Here are five key characteristics that pass the test of true native advertising.

1. Showcases content, not a display. Content, not banner! Sticking a banner ad in between the paragraphs of a blog post is not native advertising. One of the core tenet of a native ad is it should be native to the platform, which means a tweet on twitter, a post on Facebook or an article on a site is a true native ad that keeps user engaged and weaves brand’s message in user’s experience on the platform.

On the other hand, connecting with an influencer who is a trusted source of content for your target audience, and working with them to create sponsored content, is native advertising.

Native advertising is branded content that pulls consumers in by telling a compelling story. Display ads gain impressions; native ads make an impression.

2. Share-friendly. A native ad unit should have an ability to go viral. It could be tweeted, liked, shared, pinned — you get the idea..  Which means delivering banner ads via a social media channel does not make content inherently social, it is just another form of display advertising. Effective native ads contain appealing content that draws target demographics to want to share. That means your content is emotionally or intellectually compelling.

People share content for a few key reasons. For example, an amusing video designed to entertain target consumers, or a well-written industry-specific blog post positioned as thought leadership, will be organically shared many more times than any display ad.

3. Comes from a trusted peer. It may be tempting to drive traffic or social audience growth with bots, but don’t count on this marketing tactic to get you very far. Rather, successful native advertising begins as word of mouth. Nielsen’s recent study on consumer behavior showed that 70% of consumers make purchasing decisions based on online consumer opinions and 84% make decisions based on the recommendations of family and friends.

Directing spend to peer-to-peer native advertising will be much more effective than filling social streams with posts shared or retweeted by marketing bots. Native advertising offers brands the opportunity to have their pitch come from the lips of an actual consumer. Remember, advice from a trusted friend is advice that will most likely spur action.

4. Multi-device-compatible. True native advertising can be consumed via desktop, tablet and mobile. If content is device-specific, whether it be mobile banners or in-app advertising, it is outside the definition of native ads. Content, whether it is in the form of a brand sponsored post, video and social shares, by influencer partners should be easily read, watched and shared from any device.

5. Nondisruptive. Abruptly pausing content with pre-roll, interstitials, related content links, or display ads is not native advertising. Well-crafted native advertising has branding interwoven into the fabric of the content to create a wholly immersive experience. Content that is disruptive to engagement is not only time consuming, but will also interrupt the viewer’s experience learning more about your brand.

Sponsored articles and blog posts have been considered “native ads” for a couple of years now; this marketing tactic has recently gathered momentum with the advent of social media and the ease of connecting with people. Native ads are one of the most effective marketing channels when done right. Advertisers, get it right!

How marketers are getting native advertising wrong

Mobile Marketer

While native advertising and content marketing are beginning to garner budgets and rival standard digital display, brands often misalign native campaigns with marketing objectives, which potentially can backfire and destroy credibility.

Native ad spend is expected to triple from 2013 to 2015, according to a new study on branding and performance by Purch. However, for native advertising to be effective, the messaging should have claim over its environment, speak its own language, and ultimately, belong there.

“Native is most effective when it’s truly native,” said Mike Kisseberth, COO, Purch, Lincoln Ogden, UT.

“That means it’s served within the context of the user experience and follows the natural form and function of the site it’s on.”

While the findings aren’t mobile-specific, 62 percent of advertisers surveyed reported that they will incorporate mobile campaigns in 2014, which speaks to the untapped potential of mobile native, thus far.

Brand lift 
New research commissioned by Purch examined native advertising and programmatic buying, two of the top trends in the advertising and marketing industry, defining their growth and identifying specific objectives and challenges for each.

The study was conducted in Q1 2014 among high level U.S. marketer and agency advertising decision makers, spending $1 million or more on digital advertising. The survey focused on their current use and future plans for native and sponsored content and programmatic digital advertising campaigns.

Though native spend is projected to triple by 2015, critical obstacles remain.

Insufficient reporting and ROI metrics at 46 percent are the biggest challenge to success, followed by misalignment between the campaign and marketing objectives, 38 percent; required time and resource commitment, 26 percent; and native programs being insufficiently turnkey, 24 percent.

Most marketers prefer native programs that live directly in the hosting site’s content well. According to Purch’s findings, 47 percent are extremely likely to execute in-feed sponsored content that is consumed in an editorial-like environment on the hosting site. Only 28 percent are extremely likely to use in-feed campaigns that link to an off-site landing page.

Ostensibly, brands are taking their ads further into someone else’s editorial environment. While this seems practical, it deviates from true nativity as the advertising knows what is not, but also cannot define what it truly is.

Social promotion
Since entering the realm of social networks, brands have struggled on formulating best practices in advertisement with publishers and platforms to create content that fits seamlessly into a social stream, rather than alongside it.

Native advertisement on social media began as a way to promote brand image without essentially saying the content was being paid for and disseminated by a brand. The initial intentions behind this were to camouflage messages with non-branded content to exact trust from consumers.

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Should publishers tweet their native ads?

Digiday

Native advertising presents a Catch 22 for publishers. The more the ad resembles the editorial that surrounds it, the more effective it’s likely to be — but also the more potentially confusing to readers. In one study, more than half of respondents didn’t know what “sponsored” meant.

That dilemma is all the more amplified on social channels, which are becoming ever more important to the distribution of native ads.

“It’s a critical component of any native advertising campaign,” said Kelly Andresen, director of ad innovations and product strategy at the Washington Post. “We’ve seen an increase in brands asking to measure success by measuring social shares. Brands want to know, how are you going to promote content beyond the site?”

The result is that publishers are all over the map in how they let advertisers access their social channels — just as they vary in how they charge for native ads, who they use to create them and how they label them on their sites.

Say Media, where the edit staff are involved in creating the native ads in the first place, has no qualms about using its sites’ social accounts to promote the ads. This tweet is (discreetly) labeled sponsored, but not all tweets and posts are.

More conservative brands like Bloomberg, Vox Media and the Harvard Business Review use their social feeds to distribute native ads, but loudly demarcate tweets with the word “sponsored,” as in this Bloomberg example.

Somewhat more cautious, Time buys paid tweets and posts for native clients rather than tweeting straight from its editorial account and uses Taboola to help advertisers meet performance guarantees.

“If it comes from the editorial handle, we still have to make it clear that it’s sponsored,” said Jed Hartman, Time Inc. group publisher with oversight for Time. “If someone signs up from an editorial perspective, there’s an assumption of who they’re following and what they’re getting. We have to make sure it’s completely transparent.”

Some publishers, like The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, push out native from separate accounts that are dedicated to branded content. At the Washington Post, it’s @WPBrandStudio.

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