Native SSPs Gain Steam: How Native Is Steering Into Programmatic Channels

It's Not Just Like Display All Over Again

Native advertising is no longer just the topic du jour or an interesting addition to a publisher’s revenue strategy. Native is the wave of the future, embraced by both advertisers and publishers in the quest for relevancy and engagement.

But diving into native can be trickier than it appears. The point of native is that it’s integrated into the overall appearance and tone of the page, and there’s a lot involved in doing that. The fact there are six distinct IAB-recognized categories or formats of native advertising complicates matters even further.

As native moves to the front of a publisher ad strategy, the prospect of building out solutions in-house can start to feel prohibitive of both engineering and monetization resources. As such, there’s increasing demand in the marketplace for the services of native-specific SSPs.

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However, publishers need to look at a number of factors they didn’t have to consider with traditional SSPs. A native SSP needs to bring the demand for the formats the publisher supports, be it highly visible custom units, in-feed, recommendation widgets or anything else. Many publishers are going to want to ensure native partners deliver ad creative that pertains to the content on their pages, while also maintaining the ability to create blacklists to keep certain creative off their pages entirely.

With all the variants in play in native as we know it, there are obviously some concerns about how to do it at scale. It’s irresponsible for publishers to take an ad hoc approach to native. Native should be approached with a strategy in mind, and with appropriate tools.

Preparing for Liftoff

There are basically three phases in making native “happen” industry-wide and at scale.

Phase One is market development, or education. Advertisers need to learn about what native is; that it’s not a monolithic thing and what different campaigns can accomplish using different formats. The promise of native is that it’s more engaging, thereby more valuable, than traditional display. So, for example, having in-feed units available implies having enough quality content to have a feed in the first place. That communicates value to the advertiser. Advertisers need to know the difference between recommendation carousels at the bottom of the page, versus units that fit seamlessly into content near the top of the page.

Phase Two is where publishers sell native advertising as a distinct monetization channel rather than as backfill. This is basically native as the “interesting addition” we’d mentioned at the top of this article—it’s on the page, but it’s not necessarily available on the open marketplace. Sales teams need to understand on value, and how native can work other monetization channels.

Phase Three is native programmatic, recently facilitated by OpenRTB 2.3. This current phase necessitates educating trading desks and the broader programmatic buying community, who in turn can inform their advertiser partners on the value of what they’re getting and the efficiency with which they can get it.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

In a word, native is not the same as display. There are more moving parts, and there’s more sensitivity around the way the ad meshes (or not) with the rest of the page content. As one publisher source summarized it, there’s room for different entities to disagree on the “right” formats. A lot of people want to have a say about the text (a headline, for example) that appears in the ad, and the best practices are still emerging.

AdMonsters has gotten deeper into the question of transparency in native elsewhere. In short, different publishers have different ideas about the proper terminology to disclose that a native unit is an ad, and about the type of ad creative that should or shouldn’t appear on the page. It’s a fine line at times, because the publisher wants the unit to bear a look consistent to the rest of the site, but to be properly highlighted as separate from editorial content. Advertisers have their own expectations.

Providing ad units that match the form and function of the site is a matter of template management. The native SSP’s role here is to manage the template layer, which often varies in style and function across the site’s various pages.

The SSP also manages the programmatic pipes, links up with DSPs, communicates native specs, and ensures delivery. But in native, it does bear calling out—since native programmatic is still such a new prospect, it’s important to watch and make sure native SSPs are delivering consistently, in a standardized way. The various partners between publisher and advertiser may be working across multiple sets of specs, not all of which include native.

On a technical level, the native SSP needs to support delivery of a headline, an image and a description to the publisher’s page. Other intermediaries, like trading desks or creative agencies, need to deliver on the right specs. The SSP needs to coordinate and streamline these process so the publisher can focus elsewhere.

The New Quality Control

Previously, native advertising had been largely the domain of publishers who had the engineering resources to build the units, which limited scale. With native SSPs in play lifting some of the weight off of publisher in-house development resources, long-tail publishers may have a new opportunity to monetize. It’s reasonable to expect advertisers will see more publishers they’ve never heard of suddenly putting native inventory on the marketplace.

But premium publishers still have an advantage, and can keep their rates up: They have premium content and more engaged audiences. In a premium environment, the user trusts the content, and by extension trusts the ads they’re seeing. Native programmatic might open up some channels for advertisers to buy into long-tail sites on the cheap, but premium publishers need to point to the engagement on their own pages, and to how they’re doing their due diligence to give their users the best ad experiences.

If publishers needed to provide quality control with traditional display, then, their responsibility increases with native. Part of the promise of native is that it’s more engaging, that it’s a solution for the old problem of banner blindness. By that token, if native inventory is of greater value, the creative in it should be at least as relevant as with traditional, if not more.

Anything so integrated into the look and feel of the page should be there for a reason. If the user is scrolling and reading or viewing, they’re remembering, even if they’re not clicking on the ads. Publishers and vendors need to communicate to buyers the value of that engagement, which can’t be measured in clicks alone.

A native SSP partner, then, should be able to provide publishers the ability to dictate what kind of ads go with what content, and what kind of ads (particular brands, verticals, etc.) should be blacklisted. Publishers will need an SSP partner that can work with them to audit the creative coming into the native units on their sites, to assure relevancy and, by extension, value to advertisers.

Beyond that, if a publisher is looking to work with multiple native demand partners, those partners need to work well together. The native SSP ought to provide tools to help manage the waterfall: acknowledging and prioritizing existing partnerships, handing targeting appropriately for different digital properties. Native programmatic is relatively new, so the publisher should test demand sources, experiment with floors and waterfall configurations, and monitor jumps in the mediation layer.

Plan for the Long Game

If it’s true that native advertising derives some of its value from the perception that it’s difficult to do right, that the best inventory is relatively scarce compared to traditional display, and that it’s not found everywhere… will advertisers see less value in it once it’s easier to tap into in the programmatic marketplace?

Sources we spoke to on the publisher and vendor sides suggested probably not. Programmatic has scale, and scale drives value, because advertisers want to reach their audiences everywhere. That said, advertisers’ perceptions might change as programmatic native continues to open up. Premium publishers may have more of an obligation to demonstrate why they can charge higher CPMs for their native inventory than other publishers.

That obligation may play out in a couple areas, and if traditional display has set a precedent, we can predict how it might play out. For one thing, as we’d already discussed, advertisers are going to need to know what they’re buying is what they think they’re buying. Depending on the advertiser and the campaign, they’ll want to assure they’re buying into certain formats and staying out of other formats. The process will continue of educating advertisers on which formats will drive the best performance for each type of campaign they’re running.

Publishers will need to keep in mind they’ll get different types of campaigns and different grades of advertisers trying to buy into different formats. Publishers may see real differences between the advertisers that want to buy highly visible units near the top of the page, versus advertisers that buy into recommendation widgets at the bottom of the page. Publishers and advertisers will both need to guard against negative perception of their brands, and doing so will require communication between the buy side and the sell side.

For native to scale, publishers need to communicate their needs to SSP partners, and publishers and vendors together need to communicate their capabilities and the value therein to advertisers. By strategizing well and remaining transparent through the process, publishers can help drive the value of native while ensuring it’s as nimble as it needs to be for the modern programmatic marketplace.