No longer the new kid on the block, native advertising has reached maturity. As advertisers increasingly understand the benefits of native content, what comes next? Laura Bracher explores.
There is no doubt that 2014 saw the development of a new attitude towards native advertising. Native from beyond ‘20 tactics to help you find a husband’ and cats dressed up in BabyGros, to culturally relevant and quality content.
Okay, so maybe the cats stayed – but the native industry has certainly undergone a change, which Vibrant Media’s vice president, global marketing, Helen Mussard says is the result of three main factors: pressure from advertisers on brands to deliver more impact, the growth of mobile content consumption, and, perhaps most significantly, finally, the “lack of tolerance” from consumers for interruptive ad formats.
The most essential lesson the industry learned in 2014 is the importance of the consumer experience. So, with this now safely drilled into marketers’ brains, how can we expect to see native develop during 2015?
The quality of content takes high-priority within native ad formats, and cultural relevance plays a big part in that.
“Consumers are interacting more with content that’s ‘culturally relevant’ – timely with relevant events,” says Mussard. “To attain attention and retain engagement, brands need to choose native ad technologies that enable content to be changed in real time.”
I hate to be the billionth person to highlight this, but when it comes to successful branded content, there is no denying that ‘listicle’ site BuzzFeed has nailed it. In an interview with the American Press Institute last year, BuzzFeed’s chief business operations officer Eric Harris discussed how the site now sells and prices native ads.
“While there will always be ‘cat pictures’ on BuzzFeed, it’s the breadth of our editorial coverage that’s made us one of the biggest social news and entertainment organisations on the web,” says Harris.
Last year, BuzzFeed introduced its news section that focuses on breaking news from around the world along with various other long-form content. While this may seem like part of the standard expansion plans of a successful editorial site, it also forms a part of its wider advertising plans.
Harris explains that this transformation from a “silly” content site to one that contains a balanced combination of inanity and importance has helped it to attract advertisers “who hadn’t been interested in the past.”
“There is no doubt that as part of the transition to creating serious news, we have also created a much broader spectrum of branded content that spans from the silly to the serious,” he adds.
And there is no denying that this change in BuzzFeed’s image has helped it to become one of the most successful native advertising publishers around the globe.
The site was valued at $850m, according to an article in The New York Times last August, and famously works with big brands such as Taco Bell, Mini and HBO. My personal favourite is a BuzzFeed Video created for Purina-owned cat food brand Friskies titled ‘Dear Kitten’. Yes, I have made a somewhat predictable choice here with cats, but if you haven’t watched it you really need to.
No matter which element of the industry you happen to be looking at, you are never far away from the question of technology. Last year saw our industry bombarded by all things programmatic, and if you’re still trying to get your head around that then you’re not going to like what I’m about to say next: programmatic-native.
Now, before you jump up from your desk and declare yourself utterly defeated by technology (or maybe that was just me), be reassured that you may not have to worry about it just yet.
Many publishers still view their programmatic and native advertising capabilities as being on two completely different ends of the marketing spectrum. But more and more ad tech companies and publishers are starting to put these two money-making buzzwords together.
Take programmatic company Xaxis, for example. Last year, it announced that it would be partnering with blog comment hosting service Disqus to launch the “first global programmatic platform for native advertising”.
If you think about early ad serving, it was painfully manual and impractical process that varied exceptionally from one site to another. Like most technology, as native advertising solutions continue to be widely adopted, then the tools used to execute and measure these ads will evolve too. We can only expect programmatic companies to expand and provide more native advertising solutions in the future.
Caspar Schlickum, chief executive of Xaxis EMEA, explains: “Brands are looking for ways to engage proactively with their customers, and an approach to media that is centred around relevant content is a great way to build a relationship.
“Originally this meant very custom content and formats, which were expensive to produce and hard to scale. Now with programmatic, and with publishers embracing this form of advertising, we have the technology and we are seeing a sufficient standardisation to enable us to cost effectively scale a native media strategy,” says Schlickum.
Surely, by combining the two, native’s fundamental focus on creative collaboration makes it hard to scale on a programmatic level? And following on from that, will this programmatic growth start to clutter news feeds with too many sponsored posts and overwhelm the consumer?
“Both programmatic and native offer distinct advantages, but we believe that combining the two defeats the purpose of native advertising,” says Will Wilkinson, vice president EMEA Sales, Dow Jones, owner the Wall Street Journal.
“Effective native advertising reflects the interests of the reader and provides insightful, bespoke content that is relevant to their needs. Programmatic, on the other hand, is about driving efficiency through commonality, standardisation and immediate execution – the whole point is to eliminate anything that prevents real time deployment of advertising,” he adds.
Chris Rooke, senior vice president, strategy and operations at native platform Nativo shares Wilkinson’s concerns regarding a potential loss in quality with the automation of native advertising.
“If you put too much science on top of a content marketing plan then you strangle the real promise of content marketing and native advertising, which is to create great content and deploy it out to environments where consumers have already raised their hands and said that they want to consume this,” says Rooke.
“Consumers have made a concerted effort to avoid ads online. They use ad blockers – if it looks like an ad then the consumer tunes out,” he adds.
However, Rooke does suggest that the potential is there for a successful programmatic-native model, but publishers are not yet taking full advantage of the advanced programmatic capabilities available to their direct sales of native ad executions.
“Programmatic native is absolutely a real thing. We are seeing healthy demand through this channel, but the majority is not being sourced by publisher sales teams. We anticipate this will change in 2015,” says Rooke.
So, with the increase in scale of the use of native advertising, we may soon be seeing the development of more sophisticated programmatic-native platforms.
Although sponsored content has planted its roots in the content stream, how does native-video content fit into a successful, enriching editorial experience? It is important to ensure that a branded video equally adds value to the consumer’s content experience, integrating it smoothly with its surroundings to avoid intrusiveness.
In a study run by Ebuzzing and Nielsen, 51% of viewers said that they like native video and 31% prefer it to any other online advertising format.
In order to complement the editorial experience, native video can be combined with contextual advertising to place the right ad into a relevant article. This means that sites which don’t produce their own video content can generate revenue from video ads and, unlike pre-roll, publishers can save time and money with native-video that does not need to be served before another piece of video content.
Dow Jones’ Wilkinson told us that they are just one of the companies looking into the potential offerings of native video: “Video and native are key growth trends in the industry. We are increasing our resources with regard to our video offering and will include video in our native platforms. Like all our content, it will reflect the credibility and style of the platform.”
Twitter is another prime example of a company jumping onto the native video bandwagon. The social media giant told investors back in November that it had a native video tool for regular users in the works that would launch in the first half of 2015.
Currently, the only way Twitter users can share video is through Vine, the six-second video app that it owns. This latest tool will allow users to shoot, edit and post video through the Twitter app directly. When M&M Global contacted Twitter, we were told it was “all speculation at this stage” and the firm would not expand on its plans.
Although the primary goal for Twitter may be to get more users sharing and creating video on its platform, this will be one of the social platform’s biggest product updates for a long time. If companies start to make native video a major part of their marketing budgets, it will offer a widely-available solution to the exhausting battle between quality editorial and making money.
But, before you start panicking about the need to increase your native advertising budgets, there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration.
Yes, 2015 will no doubt be an exciting year for native, but publishers and advertisers alike should to take a step back before making any rash decisions. By all means look into new opportunities on the horizon, but always ask the right questions to make sure you understand the ins and outs of what is really being placed on your site.
And, on top of everything, do not put yourself at risk of pushing consumers away with the loss of editorial integrity – although cat videos will always be funny in my book.