Can Native Ads Scale?

So-called native advertising is the latest panacea for banner blindness and advertising overload. Can the industry move beyond hand-crafted placements to get the scale marketers need?

Publishers are madly adding avails to capitalize on the mania. On March 5, The Washington Post introduced BrandConnect. The company said that BrandConnect would give marketers’ content premium placement throughout the site. Brand content from launch advertiser CTIA – The Wireless Association appears in the left-hand column of WashPo’s home page among a list of stories with a header reading “Sponsor Generated Content.” The company declined to comment for this story.

Fortune reportedly has offered to create editorial with its brand that marketers can run on their own sites. The service, Fortune Trusted Original Content, supposedly starts at $250,000 per item. Time, Inc. could not be reached for comment.

BuzzFeed is pitching distribution of its own native advertising product to advertisers as Social Homepages. Advertisers can have their content distributed to nine of its publishing partners, including, Thought Catalog, and Fark. While advertisers can’t select which sites their content will be distributed to, they do have the option to exclude certain sites, the company says.

Putting together this kind of deal can be labor- and engineering-intensive. Once it’s come together, the marketer can get more bang and the publisher more buck if the natives can migrate to other properties. But scale can’t come at the expense of integration with editorial. Is a native ad still native if it’s distributed from its homeland?

The “native” moniker implies that a marketer’s content looks like it was created by and for the website. While many publishers seem to define native advertising as anything inserted into an editorial spread or feed, the most successful native ads do blend in.

“If I’m a marketer, I might create a really interesting video, and I might create an ad unit for it. I won’t create 57 ad units matched to the look and feel of every site I’m going to promote it on,” says Chris Schreiber, vice president of marketing and communications for Sharethrough. “The technical challenge is how can you scale that? How can it look and feel native on every site?”

Sharethrough, which has long defined itself as a native ad network, recently expanded from video to include blog posts, articles, reviews, infographics, and other kinds of content under the rubric of Sharethrough Sponsored Stories. Initial advertisers are Land Rover, Pop Secret, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Sharethrough and Nielsen recently completed a study showing that native video ads performed better than pre-roll for brand lift.

Sharethrough provides technology that automatically matches marketing content to the sites where it’s distributed.

But that’s not enough to create true scale, according to Schreiber. “We can match the look and feel of a site, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it fits with the inventory.” In those cases, Sharethrough will work with publishers to create ad units that can accept its native ad distributions and display them in a meaningful way.

Mobile media company Zumobi partners with media companies to publish mobile apps combining editorial content with integrated rich-media advertising.

An example is a branded mobile content campaign Zumobi created for Chevrolet. The six-part series featured custom content modules alongside editorial content within the Motor Trend app.

Zumobi answers the need for scale by offering advertisers exclusive “share of voice.” For example, Chevrolet took 100 percent of the impressions on the Motor Trend app during its campaign. “Every user sees the special advertising section, and the advertiser captures every one of the impressions with a major app,” says John SanGiovanni, co-founder and vice president of product design for Zumobi.

In some cases, he says, an advertiser that wants even more scale may take that content and “supersize it” with a media buy that extends beyond the reach of a given app. For that, Zumobi uses what it calls a “highest common denominator strategy.” Says SanGiovanni, “We can take all the content presented in the special advertising section and present it to other audiences and other apps that might not have a native ad platform plugged in.”

If the publisher has rich media support, the advertiser content will express as rich media banners, for example. It can also be used in standard banners. “This allows us to be able to have native advertising where it exists and also reach campaigns where it doesn’t,” he says.

Amid the hype, a splash of cold water came from Google, which is evidently worried that advertorials will pollute its Google News service. It recently warned publishers against passing off sponsored content as journalism. It said publishers should go as far as separating non-news content on a different host or directory and block it from being crawled. Otherwise, the company said in a blog post, “…if we learn of promotional content mixed with news content, we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.”

While most publishers say they’re committed to clearly calling out marketing content, the demand for native advertising may be changing the way companies design their websites, says Sharethrough’s Schreiber. Instead of inserting links into sidebars, he sees a trend toward Facebooky layouts – that provide plenty of room in a feed. Looking to the expansion of native advertising, he says, “As more publishers adopt the new web layouts, that will accelerate the scale.”

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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