Networking the Natives

“Native advertising” enjoys the benefit of being a publishing craze without a definition. For some, the purest form (and I use that term advisedly) makes promotional content look and feel so much like the formal editorial around it that consumers experience it (or perhaps are tricked into thinking) it is just another article. In a series of excellent editorials, our own Bob Garfield has been arguing aggressively that so-called “native” advertising or “sponsored content” really operates by subterfuge: the expectation that readers will in fact conflate editorial with promotional content. Proponents of the emerging formats argue back that when properly labeled, these sponsored content units provide a real service to readers and in fact push marketers to up their game to create genuinely valuable assets consumer want to read.



In fact, part of the native trend is really an extension of the much larger movement toward content marketing and brands looking for more effective distribution mechanisms for the piles and piles of informational material they have been building at their own sites and in whitepapers, op-eds, blogs etc. While slipstreaming these assets into otherwise premium content is controversial at best, what if sponsored content instead started showing up in the ad exchanges instead of the usual creatively challenged direct marketing pushes?

That is the interesting idea behind OneSpot, which CMO Adam Weinroth described to me as a “content advertising platform.” For OneSpot, content becomes standard IAB units. A blog post, a whitepaper or an article can be turned into a pithy quote or a headline that invites the viewer to find out more. The ad unit can include real-time updates on the content’s social velocity, retweets and Facebook Likes. The system ingests the content directly from a company RSS feed and turn each new post into ads.

The platform then uses the existing ad exchanges to distribute the content-laden ad units into a wide range of long- and short-tail publishers, including Oprah, USAToday and others. “It creates a native-like experience,” says Weinroth. “People are there for content, and they don’t want to click on ads.”

But apparently they like clicking on content, even when it is framed within ad units. In a recent campaign for Remington that was part of a major high-consideration product launch, networking a series of blog posts netted a 3X lift over the company’s internal benchmarks for typical banner ads. But because they could also tag these people landing on their sites and track subsequent activity, Remington and OneSpot were able to retarget these interested users and start determining where in the purchase path they were.

Weinroth says that the platform allows for more nuanced sequencing of content to the interested user over time. “When we start running a campaign we are in learning mode,” he says. “We collect behavioral data and give a customer a line of code on their site that tracks way points and records milestones. We watch traffic flow through different stages and assess which content is working best at which stages.”

In this case, Remington was promoting a new home hair removal unit that needed considerable explanation and likely a long consideration time. Once interested users were identified with an initial interaction, they were retargeted with third-party articles to further educate them. “We play an active role in pulling them through the funnel,” Weinroth says. In a final stage, the retargeted ad creative more explicitly drove the users to the Remington Web site where a direct call to action tried to seal the deal. “Down funnel they were able to measure a 3X lift in Amazon sales attributable to OneSpot,” says Weinroth.

Leveraging the reach and targeting technology of the massive exchange marketplace for branded content distribution is a fascinating concept, and using it as a means to tell stories in an iterative way is even more interesting to me. Curiously, this approach is “native” only insofar as the creative assets are composed of content rather than explicit promotions. But because they are distributed via exchanges and IAB standard units, they seem less likely to be confused with formal editorial.

The argument about deep integration of content marketing with premium content is not going to end soon. Publishers will be pursuing this model because it drafts on larger tectonic shifts in marketing budgets away from straightforward advertising. Apart from the problem of sponsored content showing up in the feature well, there is a larger change brewing in the concept of ad creative itself. It is possible that more and more “advertising” around the Web, regardless of placement or labeling, is going to start looking more like content anyway.

If you think “native advertising” is a fuzzy term with unclear meanings and implications, just wait a few years. “Content” is the term that really is up for grabs. 

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