Real-Time Branding (Race To The Bottom?) Native Advertising Requires Impact and Scale

This past week, I sat down with Sean Cullinane, vice president of sales at Digital Trends, a top-tier Web site featuring premium editorial content about technology that attracts an educated, affluent audience. Digital Trends is the kind of online publisher that brands love, because they provide a safe, high-quality environment for advertising, as well as unique, impactful advertising opportunities.

I shared with Sean my vision for a Rich Media Exchange. I was interested in hearing what a premium publisher who works with brands like Virgin and HTC would have to say about the idea. His skepticism didn’t surprise me.

“I’m not a fan of the exchanges, or of programmatic -- particularly with respect to Digital Trends,” he told me. “I really value the Digital Trends brand, so I would never put our inventory on an exchange. Programmatic exists for those standard banner and button ads, which have become so devalued that if you have a one percent click-through, you’re actually doing well. We’re the only industry in which a 98 percent failure rate is acceptable. We did it to ourselves back in the 90s by establishing clicks as a metric, and let’s face it: Clicks are not the best way to measure effectiveness.

If you’re Mercedes, a click certainly isn’t in any way indicative of intent to purchase. No other media is held to such a ridiculous metric. We don’t judge a billboard by how many times people have touched it. We’ve set ourselves up to fail by establishing the click as the end-all, be-all of media measurement. We’ve created an industry-wide culture that deems an ad is an ad is an ad, so why not let robots sell it? Programmatic has been the answer to the devaluation of media.”

I can sympathize with his perspective. No one will contest that alongside the efficiency and scale created by exchanges and programmatic, a myriad of new problems have emerged. The disproportionate focus on remnant media across the exchanges is a particular problem that contributes to the devaluation of media Sean referenced. And of course there are problems with viewability, fraud and media quality overall. My response to this is the suggestion that we incorporate a new measurement, which drives revenue for both the publisher and the brand advertiser: User Interactive Rate (UIR), rather than CTR. This more meaningful measurement will gauge interest and intent far better than a simple click.

What does Sean see as a potential solution for the devaluation of media?

“The way to stay ahead of that commoditization is with native advertising,” he responded. “For that, you need to have a premium content site. Big brands are going to look for ways to integrate themselves into great content. The best way to make an impact as an advertiser is to become part of the host site’s DNA, so the experience for the user is unobtrusive but still delivers a tremendous brand experience.”

Sean went on: “So many of the requests we get from advertisers at Digital Trends are for ‘NBDB’ -- Never Been Done Before -- truly unique advertising experiences that really break the mold and can’t be duplicated. Many of these involve content integration.”

But, I challenged, if every site offers their custom premium advertising, and every ad is new and unique, how can brands advertise at scale? And as a publisher, how can you possibly scale to meet all those “NBDB” requests?

“As a publisher, you have to be big enough on your own to scale it and make the buy worthwhile for an advertiser,” answered Sean. “But ultimately, that’s where programmatic can factor in. Brands can supplement those custom premium advertising buys with programmatic. For them, the impact is key, but they also need to have scale.” Sean agreed that the IAB Portrait is a great way to scale advertising that features custom editorial content for both advertisers and publishers, but maintains that custom premium advertising is the best solution for his publication.

While that may be the best solution for Digital Trends, I don’t believe it’s best solution for all top-tier publishers. I firmly believe that the Portrait, along with other customizable Rising Stars, will create the foundation we’ll build upon to deliver both impact and scale to global brands. The fact that Rising Stars are IAB standard units means they can be scaled. These ads can be sold programmatically and within the exchanges. But the fact that the Portrait in particular is so customizable and interactive means that brands can make them their own.

Where Mercedes can use one module to show an HD video of the car on the road, another to offer a search of local inventory, and the third to include custom Digital Trends content on automotive, a brand like HTC could use the same ad unit to tie into its Twitter feed, provide an interactive tour of its latest handset and pull in Digital Trends content about the latest and greatest Android apps. Both ads would deliver visual impact, and rich elements like an interactive tour and relevant editorial content will drive higher engagement rates, but they would look and behave completely differently, as if they were completely different, unique units.

While I respect and value Sean’s opinion, and while we differ in our opinions about a Rich Media Exchange, his perspective definitely made me think. Ultimately, it has helped me realize that premium programmatic marketplaces (private) must be the priorities -- rather than exchanges -- to ensure that many of Sean’s custom, unique and “never been done before” ideas can shine through and scale. I do recognize that there will always be some ads, some advertisers and some publications that will demand “NBDB,” but I firmly believe that the new RTB (Real Time Branding) will drive both the impact and scale we need to attract and keep global brand budgets in the digital space. We can and must do both as an industry working with premium brands and premium publishers.



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