The Straight Story: Native, Content Marketing and the Publisher’s Place

Advertisers and publishers across the board understand that while advertising keeps the digital publishing world’s lights on, content is what brings the audience to the goods. Marketers persistently beat the drum for content marketing, and publishers recognize how content marketing initiatives can potentially take users’ willing engagement with sponsored content and turn it into real revenue. But as the industry moves toward that ideal of mutual benefit (at scale) for publishers and brands through content marketing programs, challenges keep popping up: Automating or speeding up content development and distribution. Making the programmatic pipes work for content. Stitching together a cross-platform view of campaign performance. Brand safety concerns, for publishers and advertisers alike.

Andrew Stark, PulsePoint’s SVP, Content Solutions, is very familiar with these issues. For the past couple years, he’s been heavily devoted to building up PulsePoint’s content marketing distribution platform from scratch. That platform, Story, launched back in June, and it’s angled to take advantage of distribution opportunities via native ad platforms, social media, content discovery platforms, and publisher partners’ own properties. He took some time to chat with AdMonsters recently about making the promise of mutual advertiser/publisher benefit a reality through content, the differences between native and content marketing, and ways of measuring the real value in content marketing initiatives.

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BRIAN LaRUE:  We’ve seen a number of companies try to make content marketing distribution more efficient by using programmatic infrastructure. It’s not easy. What are some of the pitfalls you wanted to avoid?

ANDREW STARK: In the past, PulsePoint ran some owned and operated websites, and we were doing content marketing for a variety of clients. This gave us great insight — we know the challenges first-hand. It was hard running and optimizing multiple campaigns and variant testing large volumes of creative on multiple content discovery outlets. The logical step was to build a single platform that unified distribution across content discovery, social media, and native platforms, and optimized for KPIs around the user’s behavior with the content.

We’ve been very careful to pick our distribution partners. With native and social partners, we’re specifically interested in in-feed versus in-ad placements. In addition, we wanted the data to be 100% transparent. Beyond what channel the user came from, our reporting goes all the way down to the domain level and ties data to each individual version of each creative.

With content, we’re focused on engagement — not on traditional ad metrics. When you talk to content marketers, you find that they are most interested in interaction with the content — time on page, whether that piece of content is shared, whether the user scrolled down the page—on-page metrics.

BRIAN: Brands are investing in content marketing; they want scale. Publishers don’t generally have a content shortage problem, though. How do you have these conversations with publishers, who may feel a little protective of their content and editorial teams, to get them on board?

AStarkcropANDREW: Number one, it’s really important that whoever is producing and publishing sponsored content clearly identifies it as such. Problems tend to arise when someone is trying to obfuscate between a sponsored piece of content and something that isn’t sponsored.

Number two, there’s a tremendous, proven revenue opportunity for publishers in content marketing. If you’re a publisher today and you’re not encouraging brands to buy and promote sponsored content on your site, you’re behind the curve.

Publishers can monetize these branded campaigns by distributing content throughout their own networks, and can use our Story platform as an audience extension tool. Many publishers are partnering with brands, either producing sponsored content or writing specifically for the brand. They need the scale to make these branded content initiatives worthwhile for the brand, and to be able to maximize revenue from them. Story addresses this by taking that piece of content, putting it into a social or native ad, and distributing it to a targeted audience that aligns with the publisher’s existing audience. And because we optimize for on-page behavior, the paid audience brought in through these native and social channels acts in very similar ways to the organic user base.

BRIAN: People often talk about content marketing and native advertising in the same breath, but they’re not the same thing. What challenges do you see in content marketing that don’t exist in native?

ANDREW: First of all, a native ad is the container that is being used to distribute the content. The content itself is the content marketing.

We conducted tests around creating ads in the display environment to drive audience back to stories, and that just didn’t perform as well. A native in-feed ad, though, whether it’s on Facebook or on a publisher site, is designed for promoting an article that lives somewhere else, which makes this format especially effective.

BRIAN: Compared to traditional display, content comes with heightened brand safety risks related to the environment the content appears in. What precautions do you have in place for that?

ANDREW: We choose our partners carefully and won’t integrate with just anyone who calls themselves a native ad network. We review their lists of publishers and insist on full transparency. We have CPC arrangements with them, and we only charge our brands if someone clicks on their ad.

Because the reporting is 100% transparent, our publisher clients can see where every user who clicked on the ad came from. About 80% of our clicks come from known media websites or well-associated websites. In other words, you know WTVJ Miami is legitimate—it’s associated with the TV station and known websites. So, we’re able to run robust campaigns without having to rely on long-tail sites.

We’ve also leveraged PulsePoint’s security protocols across our inventory, including contextual and keyword targeting, to control where those ads are delivered. Additionally, we can accommodate brand-specific distribution parameters. For example, some brands might not want to run on certain partners because they use widgets instead of stand-alone ads, and they’re concerned about adjacency. Instead, they can choose partners within the Story platform where their ads are completely surrounded by the publisher’s content.

BRIAN: So what can a product like Story do to help publishers understand where they’re getting stronger engagement, beyond what they know from their existing analytics tools?

ANDREW: Story acts similarly to some other analytics tools, but it also allows for real-time optimization during the campaign. When you produce the native ads, you add headlines and images for variant testing. We can see when, for example, the user clicked on the third version of the headline, spent two minutes and 35 seconds on the article, and filled in an email address to receive future articles from this brand. If you ran 10 articles for this campaign, three of them had time-on-page of more than two minutes and the other seven were under a minute, you can shift budget to those three. Then you can think about what headlines or images or topics made those three work.

BRIAN: Teams responsible for creating content marketing initiatives are not necessarily the same teams responsible for media buying. Does that mean branded content opens up a new revenue stream for publishers versus “traditional” programmatic ad channels?

ANDREW: Yes, if the publisher is selling traditional advertising programmatically, the content marketing piece is more of a custom job, probably coming from a different part of the media team. There are two scenarios publishers encounter: Some brands are producing their own content and looking for publishers to host it on their domains — those are coming from the media distribution budget. Other brands may want the publisher to create the content. This custom content is paid for from another brand budget, but then can gain a larger audience via a distribution budget. Publishers can capture revenue from both budgets.

BRIAN: Do you have any case studies or feedback from publishers about Story that you can share?

ANDREW: Our bigger publisher clients are those that have their own content creation studios – they understand the value of content marketing and are looking for audience. For example, we have one client we’ve worked with for about two years. Their content marketing business is growing incredibly fast because of what they’ve been able to do with us. Their campaigns are very stable, in that we’re not buying a bunch of impressions and hoping clicks occur – they have proven engagement metrics. So, this publisher has been able to go out to the market and say, “Pay us to produce this content for you, and we expect this many users to engage with it over the next 30 or 60 days.” They’re able to hit that pretty consistently. This happens before the client even decides if they’re making the investment, so it lowers the risk and delivers results.