Answering the Call: Ad Ops In a Native World

Branded Content and Ad Ops' Role

Native advertising has developed quite the cachet in digital advertising in the past year, with even the Federal Trade Commission jumping into the debate on proper labeling. Indeed, some of this channel’s growing pains are borne right there in the name itself – “native.” 

Native advertising seeks to emulate a publisher’s platform – it has to ensconce itself in the discussions and conversations endemic to a publisher’s content, and, more important, it has to equally extend and profit from consumers’ desires for said content. 

Creating native advertising that’s harmonious to a site’s user experience – as well as creating native ads agreeable to a publisher’s reader base – can be a backbreaking task for many brands, especially larger ones concocting multichannel campaigns. But as brands blitz their way into the native ad fray, the burden seems to be falling on publishers themselves to implement branded content as seamlessly as possible.  

At the same time, brands don’t often like to relinquish the creative-building process. And with brands (and agencies), sales and ad ops all in one native ad kitchen grabbing at the same skillet, the already demanding task of creating a stellar native advertising campaign can be compounded. 

With native advertising being such a large stake in publishers’ future revenue efforts – the Online Publishers Association suggests that 90% of its members will offer some sort of branded content product by the end of this year – and with no user manual in sight, I sat down with The Huffington Post and Gawker Media to shed light on how branded content is shifting ad ops’ roles and relationship with sales, as well as where ops falls in the creative-making process.

Where Does Ops Go?

The success of a publisher’s native efforts depends on its proactiveness towards educating its team and its ability to adapt. As native advertising becomes an even larger slice of the digital ad arsenal, ad operations teams will be a big part of the puzzle as publishers readjust their ad strategies and rethink brand relationships. 

Educating (and re-educating) ad ops teams is a crucial task when it comes to native advertising. And ad ops teams at larger publishers may find themselves working to reeducate sales teams whose bread and butter is display. 

“A big challenge that we face is education,” said Tessa Gould,  Director of HuffPost Partner Studio. “And this is definitely more of a problem for us because we have a massive sales force that’s supported by AOL, and for many, many years, they really only sold [premium-format] display advertising.” 

For ad ops teams, such as HuffPost Senior Manager of Ad Ops & Monetization Jeff Turner’s, there’s also still the hurdle of figuring out how to package and productize the seemingly endless number of native ad permutations. The IAB has even gone so far as to build a native product categorization guide with the goal of streamlining transactions. 

“Having that ad ops role is important in the creation of native,” Turner said. “Especially because one thing that we’re finding [is] that the actual banners on the content are performing better if they’re aligned with native versus non-native. 

“Where the sale comes in is in terms of that content, and that’s really where ad ops is needed, not just for the automation of the ad, but also the generation of the content and tying that to the ad and how it matches the audience of the publisher.” 

With so many ways to develop and implement a native ad campaign, it’s often up to a publisher’s ad ops team to keep brands and agencies on the right track. And, the most effective way to do that is with a solid set of best practices. 

Fitting in All the Cooks

With many agencies playing monkey in the middle, reaching out to brands directly can sometimes be a burdensome task for publishers. Laying out a native blueprint for advertisers that outlines both how to best engage with a publisher’s audience and how to create content that jibes with a publisher’s website is crucial to building efficient native ad offerings. 

“They’re looking for that conversation with our audience,” said John Price, Director of Ad Operations for Gawker Media. “We want to be able to stimulate that. We, as the publisher, can steer them in the right direction.”

HuffPost Partner Studio and Studio@Gawker act as native ad colanders, helping brands filter ideas and develop content that will increase engagement and resonate with the publishers’ audiences. 

“If anyone is going to pitch native, be it the Huffington Post or the AOL sales team, they loop in our team, and our team will actually provide thought-starters,” Gould said. “It’s sort of the first step that we take to ensure that what we’re pitching is in our voice and is not only brand-aligned, but actually, more importantly,  makes sense for our platform.” 

Ultimately, working hand-in-hand with brands and agencies helps create effective and engaging native content. Having the resources on the ad ops side to extend the reach of native ad campaigns through targeting, impression goals and more may be the key to a successful and scalable native ad strategy. 

“We view native as one of our differentiators,” Price said. “To us,  it’s our premiere offering as a product. It ties back to everything we stand for as far as creating an environment for conversation. Having that ability for our users to communicate directly with a brand really goes back to our core.” 

Where Ad Server and CMS Collide

There’s a fair deal of overlap between the traditional ad server and the traditional CMS; but, it’s where they don’t overlap that’s the key to the future of native ad, according to Todd Sawicki, CEO at Zemanta. For the past two decades, there’s been little change in how publishers serve ads onto their sites, Sawicki noted during his Publisher Forum Sonoma keynote, arguing that it’s time to work with platforms that meld the ad-serving and content-managing processes – a sort of “content-marketing server.” 

“As native evolves, using an ad server to deliver [it] is definitely the beneficial way to go because it gives the advertisers what they want,” Turner said. 

And, although still a work in progress, Gawker’s Kinja seems to be answering Sawicki’s call. 

With the publisher’s almost-one-year-old content platform dubbed Kinja, Gawker’s ability to target, schedule and optimize native advertising allows brands to fit almost seamlessly into the publisher’s editorial workflow.

Giving ad-serving capabilities to editorial content allows Gawker’s native-ad content to be sold by real-time impression and engagement metrics, which allows its ad ops team and Studio@Gawker to worry less about implementation and more about quality. 

“[Native] is not really custom to us. It’s something that’s standardized. They’re literally using the exact same tools,” Price said. “That lends to more scalability in that it’s turnkey.

“We can invest more time in making awesome content and doubling down on that. For us that’s more important than anything. It’s the quality control of it.

“Having those tools allows us to scale quality,” Price added.

Quality assurance of native content is important to ensuring branded content’s fittingness with a publisher’s platform and voice. While some publishers like Gawker and the Huffington Post may have specific in-house teams to walk brands through content creation, for others, the task often lies with ad ops. And although Kinja may be on the cusp of some big native-ad superserver revolution, the pursuit of creating engaging and effective branded content arguably lies in human hands. 

“I definitely think that there is the potential to invest more, and not only on the ad-serving side, but actually [in] what those native ads look like, so it’s a little bit more user-friendly or advertiser-friendly,” Turner said.