How The Huffington Post Does Native

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Tessa GouldFew publishers can match the scale and reach of The Huffington Post’s 86 million monthly global uniques.

The AOL-owned property also has a highly international and social audience, said Tessa Gould, senior director of native advertising at the HuffPost Partner Studio. The studio, created last June, helps brands conceptualize, execute and evaluate native campaigns. “Being at the front page for one day gets up to 4 million page views.”

Brands can do native campaigns in ten different countries. “Not only do we have this organic scale and reach, if an advertiser wants further reach, we can syndicate content through AOL-owned and operated properties.”

The Huffington Post has been doing native advertising since 2010, and created the HuffPost Partner Studio to create and manage these campaigns a little over a year ago. Its creation helped native advertising skyrocket.

From Q2 2013 to Q2 2014, The Huffington Post’s native advertising revenue grew 347%. But it’s also still new: Gould estimated that more than 50% of the clients it works with are first-timers.

On any given week, The Huffington Post is running 25-35 campaigns across desktop, tablet and the mobile web.

Content Creation

HuffPost Partner Studio is separate from the editorial department, but many people in the in-house creative team were hired from editorial, so they “have an excellent eye, ear, nose for what works on our site,” Gould said. “We had a native execution from Chipotle, '9 Disgusting Things You Didn’t Know You Were Eating,' which had 221,000 social actions, which is huge. The day it was published, not only was it doing well from a native point of view, it was the most shared piece of content across the entire platform.”

The tone was consistent with the site’s content, she said, and most importantly, the content “provided the reader with some value,” a key to differentiating native content.

Huffington Post responds to RFPs from agencies or brands, or will work with sales to proactively pitch a Huffington Post execution. For an RFP, the creative team will pitch three to five ideas for content executions, a headline and a format for the piece (infographic, list, slideshow) and explain the angle of the content. There will also be an overview of how, if at all, the brand would be integrated into the piece.

Native project managers shepherd the project through to completion, and a native content strategist creates the content.

The Native Ad Server

Many publications schedule, run and report on campaigns through the same content management system (CMS) used for editorial. The Huffington Post started doing that, but quickly ran into problems. “The article preview unit wasn’t ad-served, so we couldn’t control delivery and would often overdeliver campaigns,” explained Gould, which caused the company to miss out on revenue, constrained inventory and reduced efficiency.

Since AOL is a technology company, it decided to leverage its ad server for native campaigns as well. Delivery of native campaigns and pacing is controlled through AOL ADTech, the same tool used for display campaigns. Not only is overdelivery no longer a problem, The Huffington Post can offer the same level of targeting it offers to display advertisers. Only want to show a native ad to 18-49-year-old women? The native ads that appear on one person’s homepage will be different than those on another’s.

In addition to its native ad server, Huffington Post also uses Polar, which helps flight, or time, the creative “as an intermediary between the ad server and the CMS.”

Pricing and Packaging Campaigns

Huffington Post charges on a CPM basis and promises its clients a minimum for each piece of content. Premium executions, like something that might include original photography, or scouting locations and hiring talent, include a production fee.

On the article page, an advertiser has 100% share of voice and receives display ads on the page free of charge.

“We do this because we found that the combination of the display and the content leads to much better results, rather than just content or just ads,” Gould said. “The combination of the custom content and advertising that’s aligned with the brand, leads to a two to four times greater lift in brand metrics like recall and favorability, so that’s why we package it together.”

Native campaigns are also the cherry that makes advertisers buy the ice cream, Gould quipped. Though sponsored posts are still a relatively small chunk of Huffington Post’s total revenue, a number Gould wouldn’t disclose publicly, “it’s a much larger driver of domestic revenue because it drives display spend.”

Native Measurement

Performance benchmarks for executions depend on the advertisers. “At the end of the campaign, we provide a detailed snapshot and report, and give insights on how the campaign performed against benchmarks and the number of social referrals.” Gould said. Using SimpleReach, which measures social referrals, they set up a custom dashboard for each campaign.

While The Huffington Post offers real-time insights, Gould said busy brands and agencies are most concerned about post-campaign insights, which include information about views and shares as well as future ideas for content.

Brands can also measure brand lift by working with a variety of external providers, among them EyeTrackShop, comScore and market research firm IPSOS.

A recent native execution with strong results came from eBay Designer Collective and wanted to raise awareness of eBay as a destination for designer clothing and drive purchase consideration. The native post that resulted, “What To Wear At These 6 Unconventional Weddings,” succeeded on both accounts.

During the campaign, which ran from June 28-30, product links on the page had a 7.5% CTR. The sponsor’s banner ads had an 8.3% CTR. Gould attributed the high performance of the adjacent display ads “because the ads were aligned well with the content,” showing how display and native can feed off each other as brands delve further into native.

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