IWNY: Creative Alive and Kicking in Era of Native Ads

With all the talk about data analytics in the advertising business, it can often seem creative is dead. Not so, said executives gathered on Tuesday to discuss social advertising at Internet Week in New York.

Competition to blend in seamlessly with other editorial content on web and mobile platforms— now loosely called native advertising—make high-quality ad content that much more important, the execs predicted.

“Native advertising is going to be the only advertising,” claims Jon Steinberg, president and chief operating officer of BuzzFeed. “The question is only what people are going to put in those units. The focus is on the creative.”

That comment may be a bit self-serving coming from BuzzFeed, a platform that has made its name pioneering a blend of viral third-party content, house-generated articles and advertorial.

But others on the panel, such as Joshua Nafman sr. digital brand manager at PepsiCo, testified to their success with native content on BuzzFeed and other platforms. Nafman says that Pepsi’s recent campaign to get users to try its new low-sugar cola, NEXT, saw three times the lift of Pepsi’s traditional banner ads, which hover around a .09 percent response rate. “99 percent of the people despise banner ads,” says Nafman.

With the tagline ‘Drink it to Believe it’, Pepsi earlier this year launched a video campaign in which actor William Levy presented himself as different personas—including Doctor Levy, Romance Levy, and Action Hero Levy—to convince people to try a free Pepsi NEXT, both in Spanish and English. Viewers were also encouraged to share their experiences on Facebook and Twitter.

“We tried to figure out what people would want to share about Pepsi,” says Nafman. “It started out around the idea of Pepsi Next being unbelievable and then we moved into what other things in Internet culture are unbelievable. It turned out to be highly shareable.”

The campaign ended up costing Pepsi far less than anticipated due to free sharing by users, Nafman tells ClickZ. “Being in competition with other content on the BuzzFeed platform pulls up the level of our own content,” he says.

Pepsi isn’t the only company trying to make creative that can stand up to the competition. Panelist Sam Blake Hofstetter, director of social media at VH1, says the cable TV network tries to “create content that is great content, whether it’s a video or image to share. If it’s a native ad as well, that’s great.”

He cited as an example the station’s rebrand in January, in which it created a new logo design that used bold illustrations of all the VH1 characters, including a plus sign (+). The videos showing the redesign performed very well on social media platforms. “Everywhere we put them, they went farther than expected, whether it was Tumblr’s Radar, Twitter or Facebook. It led people back to find out more about those characters and the shows behind them,” says Hofstetter.

Asked by one audience member how they actually define native advertising, panelist Keith O’Brien, director of social activations at Horizon Media, said that whatever works within the context of a website is native.

“I look at it as content that lives in an environment and doesn’t feel unique,” he says. The question was then posed by moderator Manoush Zomorodi as to whether brands would themselves start to become news aggregators, forming their own newsrooms?

Pepsi is moving in that direction, according to Nafman. “We are going more into news production but we need to earn the right to do that,” he says.

BuzzFeed is also holding workshops to help brands learn how to better create and publish their own content on the site, according to Steinberg. “Every CPG company has a brand voice and something they stand for. The way they can do content well is to get out of the way, choosing content that aligns with the brand’s approach to life, whether it’s fun-loving or serious,” he says.

Meanwhile, the NY Times’ Andrew Sorkin told the audience in a keynote following the panel that everyone has become a reporter. Clearly, the lines are blurring between editorial and advertising—although Steinberg maintains there is a strict separation between Church and State at BuzzFeed—and a backlash could occur if users feel they are being deceived by marketing messages.

But panel members seem to agree that if the content is good, users don’t mind. BuzzFeed’s Steinberg says: “The question is whether the younger generation is more okay with brands being involved or are they suspect? I think my generation is okay with it, as long as it provides value.”

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