162307779As noted in this space before, native advertising has become the money-making topic of the moment at trade events and industry webinars.

Normally I treat these “next new thing” silver bullets with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, we have been running some native advertising experiments with a few willing clients. The results have been impressive.

In one case, an advertiser who was buried several pages back in search results steadily rose to first-page prominence for key search terms within two weeks after her native ad appeared.

Precisely what is native advertising?

Sales trainer extraordinaire Mike Blinder told audiences at the recent LMA conference in Chicago that native advertising is little more than an update on the familiar “advertorial” of years gone by. In fact, Mike is giving yet another webinar on the subject for the Inland Press Association today.

Randy Bennett, writing in the LMA newsletter LocalMediaToday, says that “native advertising typically is content created for an advertiser with the same look and feel of the  publisher’s content, but includes hooks back to that advertiser.”

On the other hand, Jeff Sonderman and Millie Tran write at the American Press Institute that native advertising and its “kissing cousin,” sponsored content, differ significantly from old-fashioned advertorial.

“Advertorials seek to present advertising as editorial content to convey claims and messages the reader wouldn’t otherwise find credible. By contrast, sponsored content (done well) is properly labeled and clearly associates the brand with the content — the goal is to have the reader know and appreciate the brand’s involvement, not to hide it.”

Easy to say, of course, but hard to do! In short, we’re talking about publishers in the broadest sense of the word working with sponsors to present content that often looks, acts and reads like the other content on the publisher’s platform. To be effective, this content must be more relevant, useful and engaging than display advertising.

Sonderman and Tran identify four sponsored content business models they have seen working so far:

“Underwriting model: The brand sponsors content attached to normal reporting, or something that the publisher was creating anyway. This model preserves the most editorial independence. The brand is simply paying to have its name associated with the content.

Agency model: A publisher employs specialized writers and editors to help create custom content in partnership with a brand. The specialists balance the brand’s marketing goals with their own understanding of how to create engaging content, to make something that serves everyone’s needs.

Platform model: A publisher provides a dedicated space for brands to publish their own messages in their own name. The publisher has little direct involvement in the content. Here, the brand is paying for access to a publisher’s platform to access its audience.

Aggregated/repurposed model: A publisher offers brand the right to use archived real journalism in a new package that serves a sponsor’s interest. This may be a complete e-book, or just content to fill out a company newsletter.”

Native advertising is already a $1.8 billion market, expected to nearly double by 2017. It represents huge upside for local media companies. However, as in most new trends, the pitfalls are many. The key is to produce high-quality, interesting content that actually engages a sponsor’s potential customers.

As our forays into native advertising (powered by our insanely great content) continue, we will share with you what we learn.

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