There's no doubting that native advertising is a big deal. In fact, the Online Publishers Association reported that as many as 90 percent of online publishers could soon be offering a native advertising option to marketers. No wonder native ad spending projections look so optimistic -- even if there is widespread variation on the exact definition of native advertising.
For now, we'll put aside the debate over what constitutes native, which you can read more about here, here, and here. After all, it's probably a good thing that there isn't a consensus yet because the variation means we're seeing a lot of experiments. That's why we've put together some of the biggest native ad plays to date. Down the road, we'll look back at some of these plays to see how they turned out. But for now, these are the native moves worth watching.
You can't talk about native advertising without talking about BuzzFeed. True, BuzzFeed didn't invent native advertising, but when you go looking for examples of native ads that worked, it certainly appears that way. In fact, as far as publishers go, BuzzFeed is practically synonymous with native advertising. But it goes much deeper than clever creative. For one thing, BuzzFeed appears to be turning a lot of those native ads into serious revenue. At the same time, the company has also helped pioneer some best practices that have clearly given brand advertisers confidence. And then there's the wider distribution model through BuzzFeed's very own native ad network.
Add that all up and there's no question that BuzzFeed is leading the pack when it comes to native ads. But with so much invested in native, it is certainly worth asking what will happen if the native ad skeptics have a point. After all, there are those who question the rosy projections for native, citing concerns that publishers are giving away too much of the store, as well as sharing criticism that the data on native is just too early to tell.
The New York Times
When The New York Times makes a move, people notice. So it's not surprising that the publisher's decision to redesign its site to accommodate native ads was well-documented. But while The New York Times is certainly offering native ads (Dell was the first advertiser to come on board), the product is probably best described as paid. After all, The New York Times goes to great lengths to make clear that the native ad content is a paid ad and certainly not editorial content.
Take a look at the Dell ad here. Note that the ad appears in a separate browser window with a URL that puts "paid post" in front of the rest of the address. The word paid also appears three times on the page, which is rather easy to distinguish from a regular New York Times page because the paid pages have a prominent blue bar and rather different layout.
Why does this matter? Because while native ads might be the next big thing for advertisers, there are certainly those on the publishing side who have expressed their doubts about native, citing concerns that native dilutes the integrity of the media brand. You can read about some of those doubts here, here, here, and here. For now, it's safe to say that the news outlet is treading on the more conservative side of native, giving advertisers a good alternative to publishers out there who try to hide the ball on native with less obvious labels, as well as those who don't label at all.
At the same time, the New York Times is also carving out a reputation among publishers for bringing high production value to native content, as seen here with this in-depth multimedia story about women in prison that was part of a native campaign to promote the latest season of the Netflix original "Orange Is the New Black." Interestingly, that ad even earned praise from journalists who have been critical of native advertising.
Twitter buys Namo Media
Tech acquisitions come and go. Sometimes the big ones turn out to be nothing and the little ones that hardly got any press end up being huge. So we'll take a wait-and-see approach to Twitter's $50 million acquisition of Namo Media. But Twitter's head of advertising, Kevin Weil, did tell the world what to look for as the company plans to pair Namo with a previous acquisition, MoPub.
"...we have been working to bring native ads to mobile app publishers in order to create a more seamless and less intrusive ad experience for users," Weil said in a statement.
As for Namo, here's a look at what it does.
Bringing native to a social mobile platform is a no-brainer for Twitter, which is at something of a crossroads right now. On the one hand, the company is adding users at a slower than expected pace, but on the other hand, slow growth doesn't seem to have hurt Twitter's ability to monetize its existing users. In theory, putting MoPub and Namo together should help Twitter increase the value of its user base. Of course, Twitter isn't the only name in the social mobile space, so as native ripples through our networks and onto our phones, we'll certainly see some other big names with their own native plays.
At first glance, native ads shouldn't be able to scale. But whenever there's a trend in online advertising, you can bet your bottom dollar that there's a follow-on movement to automate and scale that trend.
On the one hand, the idea of using programmatic to scale native ads seems like a potentially huge win for advertisers. And maybe it will be. But there's also a downside to applying programmatic to native. After all, native ads are supposed to be about creating custom content that leverages a specific publisher's brand. Isn't that the whole point? With the publisher's help, the advertiser is supposed to create something on par with the content users already expect from the site. Sure, some content could play on multiple sites, but the further you stretch content across the media universe, the more you commoditize the media. And truth be told, we already do that with banner ads, which are created and distributed independent of the media. Tools that divorce native ads from a specific publisher don't seem like they'll work because they ultimately devalue the publisher and overvalue the audience. But for the time being, there's no shortage of startups out there insisting that they can have their cake and eat it to.
For any publisher considering native advertising, there's always a tension in presenting the ad content in such a way that works as editorial without actually being editorial. But while setting the boundary is critical, it's also important for publishers to think about what sets them apart in the market. After all, it's that unique quality that drives audiences to their site, and it's that same quality that advertisers seek to tap into when they make a native buy. That is precisely what makes Bloomberg's native ad play so interesting.
While Bloomberg is known for its business reporting, the site's editorial core isn't so much a focus on business as it is a data-driven approach to journalism, which, if you hadn't noticed, is incredibly hot right now. Accordingly, Bloomberg's native ads tap into the publisher's data-driven style of journalism. Recently, Bloomberg announced its first native advertiser, Zurich Insurance Group, which is running a two-year campaign (how's that for a data set?) that features articles, infographics, and videos all focused on the topic of hidden business risks.
Cracking the local advertising market has long been a goal for the online advertising industry, so it's not surprising to hear about native ad plays with a local twist.
One of those local players in the native ad arena is Speakeasy, a partnership between a local ad agency and The Dallas Morning News. In theory, a local paper should be well-positioned to take advantage of local native ads because it has access to talent, resources, and the kind of locals-only knowledge that can make content of that nature work. But as this Digiday article points out, Speakeasy initially set a floor of $2,000 a month but found that it had to raise its rates to $4,000 per month to keep the venture going. In the world of national ads, $4,000 a month is a drop in the bucket, but to local advertisers, especially the mom-and-pop variety, $4,000 is a pretty big commitment, especially when weighed against search and word-of-mouth strategies.
Then again, The Dallas Morning News isn't the only local paper playing the native ad game. A few years before people began talking about native ads, The Los Angeles Times kicked up a controversy with a cover story that turned out to be an ad for an NBC show in disguise. Given the beating that local newspapers have taken in the last decade, it's not surprising to see many of them getting involved in native. For the same reason, it's not surprising to see newspapers in trouble opting to go with the more aggressive native strategies that risk alienating readers.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Newspapers and magazines on display" image via Shutterstock.