The movement to publish branded stories across destinations ranging from Facebook to The New York Times, also known as native advertising, is drawing a lot of attention and ad dollars.
Market researcher BIA/Kelsey estimates U.S. native ad spending on social sites alone will reach $4.57 billion by 2017, almost triple the $1.6 billion spent in 2012. Nearly 75 percent of U.S. online publishers now offer native advertising, according to the Online Publishers Association and Radar Research.
It’s safe to say that native advertising is exploding. And rightfully so: When done well, it affords an enormous opportunity for brands to engage with audiences in an authentic way. As a result, the potential for brand marketers and their agencies — both PR and advertising — is huge.
That’s because the next frontier of digital communications will be about compelling branded stories, distributed with the same levels of reach and performance metrics that ad exchanges have been delivering for years.
But like anything new and unproven, such native advertising has a lot of skeptics who worry that the practice of advertising veiled as journalism faces a backlash for brands and publishers alike.
My friend Eric Knorr, editor-in-chief of InfoWorld.com, cautions that brand-backed content must be completely transparent and above board to avoid consumer chafe.
“Paid content masquerading as editorially driven content serves the interests of no one,” he says.
My personal experience consuming sponsored content on major media sites is underwhelming, but I do believe it doesn’t need to be. With the adoption of best practices — more later on some specific suggestions — the industry can move in the right direction.
Winning marketers are meanwhile investing in their capacity to produce authoritative content — be it blogs, articles, studies, infographics, videos or ebooks — designed to engage audiences, acquire new users and establish thought leadership.
If you build it, will they come?
In a hyper-fragmented, hyper-competitive media landscape, if you create great content and no one reads it, what good is it? Great content is only half the equation. It’s no longer good enough for marketers to rely on earned editorial content wins (news coverage) and plus owned media (platforms they own, such as corporate blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts) for telling their stories. Who you get this content in front of is of equal importance.
Over the past decade, the process of buying and placing ads online has shifted from analog to digital. Transactions are no longer brokered by a phone call or handshake like the days of Don Draper. Today, media buys and placements are automated via sophisticated algorithms and real-time bidding exchanges at unprecedented levels of speed, precision and scale.
The same adtech infrastructure used by brands to power infinitely scalable paid search and display advertising campaigns is finally evolving to let marketers amplify their content in much the same way.
But assuming you can get it in front of the right audience, a big advantage of great storytelling is that it outperforms display ads in terms of viral potential and social influence.
These are some of the top tools and platforms we’re experimenting with right now to amplify client content:
Paid content discovery networks
Services such as Outbrain and Taboola can be thought of like Google Adwords for content. These content discovery networks allow brands to create an “ad” for their content at the bottom of related stories on major media sites. Operating under a cost-per-click model, any budget range can be set, starting at as low as $500 for between 1,500-2,500 views.
Social and professional networks
Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all have their own ad exchanges that allow brands to target ads at specific groups of people and influencers. When people interact with ads, their friends may see the same ad, making it even more powerful. All of these social networks offer a unique way for brands to advertise and amplify their content, though each caters to a different audience. LinkedIn, for example, is effective for reaching vast segments of professionals, whereas Facebook is better for reaching audiences when they are in a “consumer state of mind.”
Retargeting multiplies messaging opportunities. And it’s not just limited to ad network giants Facebook, Twitter, or Google. Services such as AdRoll let brands re-advertise to people who have visited their web site as they browse across the rest of the web.
But retargeting isn’t just a great way to scale your display ads. Companies, including Tableau Software, are using retargeting to improve their demand-generation program by promoting educational and thought leadership posts related to someone’s topic or pain point of interest when they visited their site. (Disclosure: AdRoll is a client of my company, the Bateman Group.)
News aggregators like TechMeme and major media sites like Forbes.com allow brands to customize sponsored content campaigns on their sites. These offerings are quite expensive, ranging from $7,000 per month on the low end to hundreds of thousands of dollars on the high end.
A path towards native advertising excellence
All of this is for nothing, of course, if marketer-driven storytelling violates consumer trust, as InfoWorld.com’s Knorr points out. If readers feel duped by content, they go away with “lasting resentment toward the publication and the sponsor,” he says.
Expect the Federal Trade Commission and the Interactive Advertising Bureau to carry the torch in defining boundaries for native content.
But as a Wild West of sponsored content unfolds, the industry needs to self-regulate by establishing some standards and best practices. For starters:
1) Earned media is king.
While branded content is on the rise with no apex in site, nothing trumps the authoritative qualities and influence of earned media. With this rule in mind, marketers should look to amplify their top earned media via promoting this content across content discovery networks and social media.
2) Distribute quality storytelling.
Not all content is created equal. With the rise in popularity of content discovery networks, expect to see many brands put a lot of spending behind sub-par content. As the saying goes, a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Prioritizing quality, journalist-grade content will lead to quality campaign performance.
3) Pick the right content network.
Outbrain’s network boasts the third-highest traffic behind Google and Facebook, but not all traffic is created alike. The popular content discovery networks have lined up some amazing publishing partners, but brands must be careful to evaluate whether their desired audience can be effectively served through these networks. Trying to reach an IT storage administrator? Then putting an Outbrain widget on your content might not be a good idea. Vet your content network carefully.
4) Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.
Just like your stock portfolio, your paid content program should be diversified with the right mix of media. Don’t go all-in on a single channel. Also, be sure to continually test and measure how each channel performs to optimize the impact of your investment.
5) Be transparent.
As publishers look for new ways to monetize their inventory, they must be 100 percent transparent about whether content on their site is editorial or sponsored. Period.
It’s early innings in native advertising, with plenty of learning ahead and best practices to establish. As a 20-year PR professional, I have never been more excited about the rapid innovation happening in the industry and where we will go from here. Indeed, there is a huge role for PR to play with the advertising and media industries in charting the path forward for paid content excellence.
Bill Bourdon is an owner and general manager at Bateman Group, a digital communications and content agency with offices in San Francisco and New York City.