My first sales trip for FORBES was a stop in Detroit in August 2010, memorable for the heat, humidity and a chilly reception. I was pitching BrandVoice, then called AdVoice. The ad agencies and clients we visited didn’t quite get what we were talking about. Still, we pressed on with a solution for advertisers shared by few other publishers at that time. Soon came the buzzword — native advertising. It was far more provocative than an earlier catchphrase (content marketing), making it easier for the media take sides. Today, marketers are captivated by native ads. Many are big proponents, others not so much. Journalists, for the most part, abhor them.
In a few weeks, I’m off to The Festival of Media in Rome to discuss the FORBES position on all this. I’ll certainly point to our innovative publishing platform. It’s scaleable and efficient. Most important, it’s built atop a philosophical belief that all content can be treated equally if its originating source is transparently identified. We’ve had 38 digtial BrandVoice partners, 18 in print. All carry the company’s name with BrandVoice labeling. Each works with our brand newsroom (reporting to sales), much like our reporters and 1,200 contributors engage with the editorial newsroom (reporting to me). As chief product officer, I partner with Mark Howard, our chief revenue officer. Last week, Mark and I compared notes on the state of native ads. Here’s where we came down:
1) Competition: It’s getting crowded — and the names attached to native ad products can be maddeningly similar. Mashable joined the FORBES lexicon with BrandSpeak. The Washington Post has BrandConnect. IPG, the ad agency holding company, has BrandPost. The Wall Street Journal takes it to a different plane with Narratives, as does The Guardian, with Guardian Labs. Often, a publisher’s intent remains unclear: a strategy befitting the world of social media or a gambit to grab buzzy ad dollars.
2) Transparency: A year or so ago, it referred to the clear labeling (see below) of marketer content (remember the dust-up caused by Andrew Sullivan?). That clarity for consumers is now table stakes just to play. Today, it’s equally important to provide marketers with visibility into success metrics around content discovery, consumption and engagement — on domain or off domain. In other words, both consumer and marketer require equal parts transparency.
3) Content Creation: FORBES has a “brand newsroom.” It advises marketers who want to create their own content and finds third-party writers for those who don’t. Others, hearkening back to their custom publishing units, are assembling in-house studios to produce native content. One publisher openly touts that its editorial newsroom creates content for marketers. Yet another puts a fig leaf between edit and native. The issue boils down to quality vs. scale. How ad agencies accustomed to obsessive control and scaleable banner solutions achieve the same with native ads.
4) Labeling: The Federal Trade Commission has joined this fracas. It can be confusing: Paid Post, Sponsored Post, Sponsored Content, BrandPost, Content From. The options are even more varied than that, almost always tied to the level of hue and cry from a publisher’s newsroom. The reality: pretty much any distinction works for a generation of news consumers brought up in the digital world.
5) Presentation: The big dividing line here: publishing platform vs. Web site. A platform experience offers an integrated look and feel consistent with the consumer experience. A traditional site relies on stand-alone treatments outside the natural flow of content. It’s the difference between a streaming, social mentality and a page-view-with-ads bias. Platforms produce an inherently native experience. Web sites work as shoe-horns.
6) Ad Networks: Much like display ad networks, their game plan is about achieving scale for marketers. Many provide their own publishing platform to facilitate native ad placement across an array of content sites. The rub: for publishers, it turns a premium buy into a commodity buy; for marketers and consumers, what’s native about one piece of content produced for potentially very disparate audiences?
7) Distribution: It’s a debate about discovery. Do Outbrain and Taboola effectively do the job of amplifying branded content? How does it get shared across the social Web. Why place marketing content off domain (meaning a platform like FORBES) when Red Bull and Nike do it on domain, meaning a corporate micro site? One answer: the later can cost tens of millions of dollars.
8) The Ad Buy: More publishers means more purchase options. The metered model is one way — pay per post, page view or the number of the marketer’s traditional ad impressions surrounding the post. Another option is a site-wide license that provides for unlimited posting (most FORBES BrandVoice customers choose this route).
9) Evaluation: It’s all over the map — uniques visitors, page views, likes, shares, tweets, retweets, etc. The end game is to drive business, which is difficult to measure other than counting sales and revenue. So, that means using other proxies, like brand perception metrics.
10) The Players: Media practitioners are shifting roles, sometimes gunning for each other. Ad agencies are building “newsrooms” to service clients, who are building “newsrooms” to run around public relations companies, who are building “newsrooms” to compete with agencies. They all need journalists, who are finding employment at all of the above.
Detroit seems a long way off. Our Chicago sales team has brought on a number of BrandVoice partners and native ad converts continue to grow. In a report released in January, the Interactive Advertising Bureau said 66% of agencies and 64% of marketers intended to spend money on native ads in the next six months. The Content Marketing Institute found that 58% of B2B and 60% of B2C marketers intend to increase their content marketing budgets in the next year. And a report from Hexagram and Spada says 62% of publishers offer native ad solutions. Advertising will continue to evolve in the world of social media. Native ads are clearly a big piece of the march forward.