Everyone’s Gone Native: Wrapping Up PubForum Sonoma & the Native Advertising Summit, Part 2

Wrap-Up #2: Native Fails and a New CMS

As I mentioned in the first part of this wrap-up of the Publisher Forum: Sonoma and the Native Advertising Summit, questions surrounding native seem to spring eternal: do utilitarian campaigns perform better than ones that are simply entertaining? As publishers and brands get bolder and wiser, we’ll have much more insight into what works best.

However, we already have a prime example of what not to do in native – The Atlantic’s Kimberly Lau (a speaker at last year’s OPS NY was brave enough to speak at the Native Advertising Summit about her publication’s native misfire with the Church of Scientology. The swell of media criticism around the article inspired weeks of internal debate over advertising policies, she said, as well as the development of a publisher advertising guide.

“Prior to this experience, this was a black and white issue,” she said. “Now it’s very gray – it’s an ongoing conversation.”

A main focus for the Atlantic is how much labeling for native content is enough? Every user has a different interpretation of site content, so the biggest difficulty may be determining what’s transparent but not too aggressive (think a giant red backdrop that says “PAID CONTENT” – kinda defeats the whole integrated purpose).

However, was Scientology a special case due to the toxicity of the brand? Even the organization’s Super Bowl ad faced a mammoth wall of digital criticism – widespread negative reactions online tend to follow in the wake of anything involving Scientology. Perhaps the lesson to draw out of this is some brands just ain’t worth the trouble.

No, said VICE’s Eddy Moretti, who felt a great deal of the criticism was unfair. Both Moretti and James Del of Gawker said they would have jumped on the opportunity to build a native campaign with Scientology. Namely, it represented a challenge, a chance to do something interesting and engaging that could benefit both parties. Native ads can court controversy, just like editorial content.

But there has to be a point where a pub says no, right?

“If you don’t believe in the product, don’t put your editorial integrity on the line,” Moretti commented.

The true reason the Atlantic’s Scientology campaign fell flat had to do with something Aol’s David Shing mentioned earlier at the Native Advertising Summit: native is all about harmony.

“It wasn’t harmonious to the site,” Lau said. “It didn’t bring value to our readers.”

The community must be ready for a native campaign, Moretti suggested. Where Atlantic readers are accustomed to critical examinations of news and culture, the Scientology article was below the level of puff piece. It was pretty much an advertorial. 

But aren’t advertorials a form of native? Well, maybe not, or at least not a good/high-performing form. If we judge the most successful examples of native advertising from the last year – BuzzFeed’s work with Virgin rings a bell – publishers are the ones in the creative driver seat, with little input from the brands (certainly they’re a minority voice at best).

In fact, Moretti noted that one of the three most important questions VICE asked before embarking on a native campaign for a brand was how much latitude does VICE have with the brand. Publisher’s house, publisher’s rules.

Who’s the Boss?

College Humor’s Paul Greenberg noted that brands had been hitting his team up for years to build humorous videos revolving around them – about 70% of large campaigns on the humor site have a branding or native element to them. Certain writers, editors and production staff are dedicated only to branded content. Brand marketing folks go through what Greenberg described as something akin to a full-service agency.

So then, someone asked, are publishers turning into agencies? 

Well, no – the core of their business is still publishing, but as Digiday has continually noted, publishers like The Onion and others are setting up agency divisions in charge of brand advertisers’ native creative. However, how should these units be aligned with straight editorial?

In singling out the Atlantic example in his PubForum Sonoma keynote, Zemanta president and former Cheezburger CRO Todd Sawicki commented, “No editor saw that, put their foot down or stood up to the ad people.” With native, you’ve gotta run it like advertising, he said, but editorial needs to be involved.

At the Native Advertising Summit, Lau mentioned that the classic church/state division is still in place when it comes to editorial and advertising. However, there are several editorial-esque professionals in the native unit. During his Sonoma Keynote, BuzzFeed’s Eric Harris also presented their setup as a best-of-both-world’s solution: writers developing campaigns tend to have editorial backgrounds and understand concerns and conflicts, but they’re still kept on a different floor than editorial.

For each publisher dabbling in native, the answer will be different. Moretti suggested that for news and hard-hitting stuff, the separation between editorial and advertising becomes rock-solid again, but I don’t know if I agree. At AdMonsters, we have a native product called Connect in which ad technology companies sponsor in-depth feature stories and starter guides for tools they offer. We’re not writing about that particular brand’s solution, but the general issues around a topic – we’d like to think it’s no less “hard-hitting” because the content is brought to you by so-and-so. (Reporting on native advertising is a little meta as I feel like I’m knee-deep in the development of this concept.)

During a recent debate with BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, famed and now independent blogger Andrew Sullivan made the comment, “if journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society.”

When this statement was brought up at the Native Advertising Summit, Del disagreed – increasingly, social media is allowing all Internet users to fulfill the roles of journalists. They provide the checks and balances for native campaigns.

That solid line separating editorial and advertising has become quite blurry in the digital age – kind of similar to publisher monetization strategies. The failure of the banner in digital media proves that advertising must be in the same stream as content. Facebook’s success with in-feed mobile ads further suggests that mobile and portable technology will encourage native forms of advertising.

If content and advertising are increasingly streamed together on the user side, it’s highly likely that must be mirrored on the back-end.

The New CMS

Courtesy of Sawicki, here’s a little native economics for you: 

$0.25 to $10 per brand engagement X 5% engagement rates = $12.50 to $500 eCPMs.

That certainly beats the hell out squeezing a $10 CPM for a lousy performing banner on a home page. No matter how much talk you may hear about the banner being broken, Banners are not going away – they can be quite handy for purposes such as retargeting. However, in the near future IAB standard units will mostly be traded on a programmatic basis, and likely not as “premium” inventory. Native is the new premium.

Buyers want to harvest an emotional connection with their advertising, explained MAGNA GLOBAL’s Brian Monahan in his opening keynote at PubForum Sonoma. That is, something consumers can take away from the experience and associate with the brand. That is a premium price point.

But is an emotional experience quantifiable as a metric? 

BuzzFeed seems to think so – you simply measure by shares, which thanks to the social age, can be measured. VP of Agency Strategy and Industry Development Jonathan Perelman commented at the Native Advertising Summit that the metric – the only metric – for BuzzFeed is social/viral lift. How is this being shared? A client recently shared this quote: “I share your brand not because I like your brand, but because I like my friends.”

At the PubForum, Harris summed it up: “If content can be social, ads can be too.” For BuzzFeed, ad content is already competing with editorial content, with performance judged by the amount of social reach.

If content and advertising are integrated – and competing against each other – why are they being delivered by separate servers? Sawicki, whose presentation was (shockingly?) titled “Revenue Without an Ad Server,” suggested that content management systems and ad servers should be merged into something bold and new.

The basic technology churning deep inside sell-side ad servers hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years, he explained. There’s a fair deal of overlap between the ad server and CMS – both do scheduling, source attribution and analytics, but only ad servers can optimize. Optimizing content will require something that looks like an ad server: call it a “content marketing server.” Native ads will have to be served like content – BuzzFeed seems headed down that track as native ads are served to various set-off content positions.

All in all, this represents an exciting opportunity for publisher revenue specialists to lead the way in building the next generation of media monetization. Who is in a better position to lead the charge? Make no mistake, in a world of multiple ad servers that don’t work well together, it will take a lot of hard work, not to mention trial and error. But it’s certainly a worthy goal, and has the potential to define the future of digital media.