Going Native

GoingNativeTalk of ghost publishers and robot traffic has digital brand advertisers questioning some long-held beliefs. They’re wondering whether the promise of efficiency in media is outweighed by the prospect of buying ads that only machines will ever “see.”

As Mike Shields pointed out in an excellent AdWeek article the other day, brand advertisers have found themselves at the mercy of phantom publishers who live to exploit the programmatic technology systems that deliver banner ads. It’s a problem that until recently has largely been ignored, even as gullible advertisers shell out millions of dollars only to receive fake clicks and “views” in return. Writes Shields:

Increasingly, digital agencies and buy-side technology firms are seeing massive traffic and audience spikes from groups of Web publishers few people have ever heard of. These sites — billed as legitimate media properties — are built to look authentic on the surface, with generic, non-alarm sounding content. But after digging deeper, it becomes evident that very little of these sites’ audiences are real people.

Among the money-sucking ghosts that Shields names are an outfit called Precision Media, running some 25 content sites like Toothbrushing.net; Alphabird, running 80 sites; and DigiMogul, operating something called Directorslive.com that has reported a rather unlikely 326 million monthly page views. These and other such scammers, the AdWeek man reports, are less than forthcoming about their operations or owners.

All of which is driving more interest in native advertising, or what we are now calling sponsored content, or “advertorials,” as they were called once upon a time. The idea behind native advertising is a simple and well-proven one: Tailor ad messages to the format of the media. A tweet becomes an ad when it’s a “sponsored tweet” and a Facebook message can become a “sponsored post.”

Companies like BuzzFeed have worked with brands like Old Navy to populate the web with pictures of squirrels in Christmas sweaters to grab mindshare and thus bring their irreverent style to millions of consumers where they are used to consuming content.

Today’s web-based platforms are enabling marketers to be publishers, and engage with their audiences in real-time. Brands brave enough to produce content, or that have a unique point of view — take Red Bull, as an example — are finding that making investments in content and aiming marketing into other content platforms with native advertising efforts are paying dividends that go beyond traditional marketing efforts.

Suit to fit
Your company website may have a blog, but it is meant to broadcast, not listen to, consumers. Native advertising and sponsored content give consumers the ability to extend messages through social sharing, commenting, and mingling user-generated content with content that has been created by brands.

For Scott Roen, vice president of digital for American Express, whose Open Forum is the leading small business website, the idea of tailoring advertising to the format of the content is an obvious advantage. “Where can we be part of a conversation where people want us? It’s getting back to the roots… [native advertising] is not a fad.”

Is native advertising better than the banner ad? “It’s certainly better than what we had before. Anything that makes the user feel the advertising is more seamless is good,” said Mary Gail Pezzimenti, vice president of content strategy for Federated Media. “The brands that have taken the time to establish thought leadership and provide high quality content have permission to engage in those conversations.”

So, is the native advertising trend just a retread from the past, or is it a legitimate new advertising tactic, brought about by platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr? For Benjamin Palmer, CEO of the digital creative shop Barbarian Group, who works with huge global brands like GE, “Native ads will be around as long as the platforms that support it are.”

[This post originally appeared on 3/26/13 in The CMO Site]

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