Alex Honnold climbs El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico as captured in video sponsored by The North Face.
There’s no question that native advertising is the future. Publishers badly need revenue and companies (or “brands” as they’re called in ad industry parlance) are willing to pay to get their name out of banner ads and into articles alongside editorial. But does the paid-for content have to be a waste of time?
No! There will always be native ads that don’t get clicked on, and many others that will get hits but which are better left unread. (Actually, that’s the case with much of the web, but I digress.)
“Much of the native advertising isn’t good,” Tony Haile, chief executive of Chartbeat, acknowledged during a panel at the Native Advertising Summit yesterday put on by Sharethrough in San Francisco. He should know — his company does real-time analytics for publishers and content creators. In fact, only one-third of people who click through a headline scroll when it’s a native ad, he said.
The industry knows it’s got a quality problem, and it’s trying to solve it. One way is to push the standards needle by measuring time spent on a webpage rather than just the old Web 2.0 metric of clicks or views. At Upworthy, dubbed the “soulful Buzzfeed” by Fast Company, sponsored posts do much better than regular editorial — triple the views, “attention minutes” and shares. Their main metric is time spent. In fact, they are outsourcing the source code so others can hop on that train.
That measurement can change the dynamics of the business model for native ads, but we still have to figure out what kind of content is making people read full posts and not just the headline. Upworthy’s secret sauce is emotion. That and a healthy dose of data worked for one of the most memorable and successful native ad campaigns to date — the article and infographic from Netflix about women in prisons that published in The New York Times to coincide with the release of the new season of Orange is the New Black. The headline was “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” and one of the pull out quotes was: “When you incarcerate a woman you incarcerate her whole family.” Who could resist that?!
“Time spent with this article, on many days, rivaled some of the top articles on the New York Times from an editorial standpoint,” Kristine Segrist, client lead and digital product development manager at MEC, the agency Netflix worked with on the New York Times ad, said during the Native Advertising Summit. “We can buy page views… but you can’t buy time spent.”
Sharethrough CEO Dan Greenberg talked about the movement toward “meaningful” content and away from click bait in his keynote at the event. To underline that point he announced the launch of Meaningfulcontent.org, a project aimed at promoting quality content that is under-appreciated through the Sharethrough native ad exchange. What’s meaningful? The criteria is: connection with the subject matter, original thought, advancing an idea, and depth of engagement. And it has to be good content that isn’t getting the eyeballs it deserves.
To be clear, this is not branded content being promoted, but non-branded content (video, articles, etc.) that will be given $1 million worth of promotion and distribution to all the web publishers Sharethrough works with. “On average, every post is getting an extra 10,000 to 20,000 people exposed to it,” Greenberg said.
This effort won’t directly impact the quality of native ads, but it raises the bar for the quality of posts that are getting pushed through the native ad exchange and vying for reader attention. It’s also really interesting because it’s one of the first efforts I’ve heard of where the industry put non-paid content in ad space that could be sold. Like a public service but with the result being content people really want to see, which is usually the furthest thing from what people think of as an ad. What a novel concept!
The three to five pieces of content promoted each week will be chosen by Greenberg, Sharethrough President Patrick Keane, and an advisory board made up of Chartbeat’s Haile; James Buckhouse, head of product innovation and growth at Twitter; Jay Lauf, president and publisher of Quartz; and Evan Hansen, senior editor at Medium.
Medium is attempting to solve the quality problem by providing a platform on which brands and non-brands alike can publish quality content that’s in good company. More than 1,000 posts are published on Medium each day, including from influencers like Elon Musk, David Carr and Anthony Bourdain. The site offers writers good tools and design, and algorithms that push higher signal-to-noise items to the top of the pile, whereas quantity is rewarded more consistently than quality on other sites, according to Hansen, former editor-in-chief of Wired.com.
He didn’t say whether or how many brands are using Medium, but it clearly is a beautiful site with intriguing posts written by respectable journalists and writers like Quinn Norton. And there are no ads, at least in the traditional notion of an ad. Interestingly, the average time spent to read each post is listed along with the author and date at the top. This is what “magazines” will look like in the future.
But back to native ads. We can shift the metrics but how do we get brands to really push the creative and distribute stuff that makes readers laugh, cry, change their lives, make a difference in the world — oh, and share it?
I think the answer is that it comes from the gut. If it’s really just tying a concept back to your product, that’s marketing. But if it resonates with peoples’ emotions and dreams, then it’s more than just content. You know authenticity when you see it.
One company that hits the right chord is The North Face. Tim Malone, head of content at the company, showed a video at the Native Advertising Summit that literally had people in the audience holding their breath. It was a video of a free solo climber 1,500 up on the vertical face of a mountain in Mexico called El Sendero Luminoso. The smile on the climber’s face as he held onto the rock with just his fingers and toes was heartwarming.
“We want to create something to inspire people to do more,” Malone said. “We want to create things that are meaningful to us and not add noise to the conversation.”
That’s a good challenge for all advertisers — create something that moves you emotionally, and the public will follow.