Considering Native: What BuzzFeed, The NY Times And Content Shops Say About (True) Scale

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JonahPerettiBuzzFeed, the ultrapopular purveyor of listicles and viral content, began with a question: “What does it take for something to spread on traditional media without the cost structure associated with traditional media?”

The publisher’s CEO and founder, Jonah Peretti, recalled onstage at AdExchanger’s Industry Preview last week the way the company originated as “almost a research lab.”

The “constraints” in traditional media’s migration online, as Peretti called it, have to do with “formats and boxes that are tied to the print world.” He cited The New York Times' and Washington Post's replacements of slideshows that mimic the print-derived nature of a “page turn” with long scrolls to match the native form and function of mobile devices.

For Peretti, “native” means taking a publisher’s platform and creating a version of sponsored content or advertising that mimics the look of the publisher. “Native meaning it fits into the consumer experience,” he said.

Michael Zimbalist, VP of research and development operations at The New York Times, was bullish at Industry Preview about the way native could reinvigorate the relationship between publishers and advertisers.

He noted the storied publisher’s pivot from only “selling subscriptions and access to audience” to thinking more broadly about brand metrics like social activation, influencer outreach and content engagement.

“The old metrics saw the Internet as a self-contained channel, a direct-response medium, as typified by the click,” Zimbalist said. “These are the metrics that built a vast labyrinth between brands and publishers. Marketing is about winning hearts and minds, shaping the social discourse.”

Native Ads or Branded Content

There’s a difference between native advertising and content marketing, the latter of which typically brings to mind the image of “brand as publisher” through outlets like owned-and-operated blogs and email newsletters.

“A native ad is an ad that fits into the environment in which it’s delivered, and we interpret that as delivering content that’s appropriate to the right audience within the right environment,” commented Andrew Stark, SVP of content solutions for PulsePoint, a programmatic content-marketing solutions company. “We’re looking to deliver an ad across our exchange to the right person within the appropriate context, which makes that ad native.”

On the publisher side, Zimbalist said the Times’ recent relaunch of its website was a way to introduce branded content as a complement to native ads as part of the newspaper’s broader ad-monetization story.

“We think of native as discovery,” he said. “It steers audiences toward branded content, which has access to the same kind of tools that go in to the creation and presentation of our stories across our site. There's so much discussion on how to label native ads and branded content. We call it a paid post. It tells you it isn't an ad. It’s content, but it's paid for.”

(The Times also distinguishes paid content using a different font and typestyle, though it exists in the Times’ domain and is discoverable in the way all site content is).

Going Paid (And Viral) On BuzzFeed

Similarly to The New York Times, BuzzFeed’s paid content is designed for discovery much in the same way original content is on-site, though it’s marked with a “BuzzFeed Partner” byline. Such was the case with Kmart Fashion, which sponsored a series of posts on the platform to promote actress Sofia Vergara’s line of in-store apparel.

Working with full-service digital agency ICED Media, which has just launched an in-house Content Lab fueled by client demand, Kmart featured two listicles on the BuzzFeed site, as well as a series of animated gifs and memes featuring Vergara, in a dress, alongside lighthearted messaging like “Shopping is my cardio.”

“I think the opportunity with native advertising is the way we were able to make content around Sofia in the way that people were consuming and sharing content already,” said Leslie Hall, president of ICED Media. “I think our Sofia listicles were shared over 1,400 times alone and BuzzFeed told us it was [among] their top performing paid campaigns, which they credited to the celebrity element and the fact that a lot of the content was so consistent with the type of content people are normally sharing on their platform.”

Besides developing original content for brand clients, agencies are also responsible for maximizing paid investments  of content derived from other channels. Sometimes that requires a repurposing of assets from television commercials and photo shoots to other platforms, as was the case with ICED Media’s applying client Louis Vuitton’s internal video to “individual storytelling moments on Twitter to [help drive] mobile commerce.”

Rethinking Distribution And Measurement

Consequently, brands marketers are beginning to prioritize distribution of content and native advertising assets and delivery.

“That’s the hardest part for publishers and media companies also,” said Steve Sachs, CEO of programmatic content marketing technology company OneSpot. “A lot of the content-distribution options now are either not of scale or take a lot of work for a client, and what clients want as this becomes a bigger and more important part of their marketing mix is to have scalable, programmatic ways to deliver content that don’t take a massive amount of custom work.”

According to Rebecca Lieb, an Internet analyst for Altimeter Group, there are strategic issues to consider, as well, “where you can’t base native advertising [success] on content strategy alone.”

“Native is paid plus owned [media] so you need content people to talk to advertising and owned is shared, so you also need to bring in the social people,” she said. Scaling native advertising applications “to travel” cross-platform can also be a challenge when publisher-created content for native executions are often contractually limited to that publisher’s platform.

“You want to make sure you have a creative concept that you execute very differently based on the nuances of how people use a channel,” Hall added. “On the other side, it’s about, ‘OK, if I want to scale this, how am I going to do that in a way that’s wholly qualified?’ I know that I’m going to get ‘x’ number of views or impressions if I’m sticking with my own channels, but if I know this has the opportunity to amplify it a little more, I have to be really thoughtful about where I’m going to get that traction’” cross-platform.

As more ad networks pop up to provide programmatic content marketing at scale, Sachs said OneSpot’s focus is to help companies like Unilever and P&G predict which piece of content will be most relevant to the a person they’re targeting. Beyond the first click, once someone engages with the content, OneSpot uses machine learning to predict which piece of content will be the most relevant for a reader based off of a combination of metadata, first- and third-party cookie data and digital fingerprinting to enable scale.

Workflow Changes

According to Shafqat Islam, co-founder and CEO of content-marketing platform NewsCred, which just raised $25 million in funding, there is a definite workflow challenge associated with scaling on the content marketing side of the equation.

“I will admit our tool allows the social, paid and content team to all collaborate and work in one tool, but the issue is, some brands and agencies are not actually [working] that way,” he said. “The teams can be really siloed. The content team’s creating content, but if they’re not able to drive paid distribution against it,” it can dead-end. Similarly, sometimes content and social teams are creating completely different content.

“I think we’re starting to see the silos go away, but it’s definitely still a problem,” he said.

Sachs predicts content marketing will follow a similar path as social media, which initially served as a branding and awareness apparatus in which brands could simply “show up" and be present, but which has slowly evolved into a diverse vessel for distribution of paid media.

The most important thing when considering content and creative is, however defined by a brand or agency, that piece of content first and foremost needs to be something people want to read, Sachs said.

“And then the second piece of it is, even if it’s well-done, if it doesn’t reach the right audience, then no one’s going to see it.”

 

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