A Tale Of Two Natives: How Publishers Approach Sponsored Content And Programmatic Native

Tale-of-Two-NativesIn an age of banner blindness, nearly every publisher has added a sponsored content offering. Meanwhile, programmatic native is replacing banners and boxes.

The programmatic native bucket, which includes Outbrain, TripleLift, Sharethrough, Taboola and Yahoo Gemini, features advertising in the form of article snippets, which look similar to sponsored content teasers.

Sponsored content, by contrast, is the ultimate in high-touch. Publishers create content on behalf of brands and distribute it – usually exclusively – on their web and social media sites.

But if publishers devote real estate to both snippets and sponsored content, do they risk cannibalizing the latter? How can publishers ensure those article snippets are actually relevant and valuable to readers?

The Globe and Mail, ALM Media and Trusted Media Brands shared their approaches to native advertising, from sponsored content to programmatic native.

Walled In Sponsored Content

Most publishers who do sponsored content and exclude other native formats aren’t trying to protect advertising revenue – they’re protecting subscription revenue.

Publishers whose content is good enough to make people pay for it also have enough cachet to build out exclusive native advertising programs. They include The New York Times, The Economist and the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. (BuzzFeed, which took a strong sponsored content-only stand early, is a notable outlier because it doesn’t have a subscription business.)

“Because we have a hybrid commercial model with subscribers, we’ve historically been concerned about belly-fat ads,” said Andrew Saunders, CRO of The Globe and Mail, using the industry metaphor for low-quality ads. “We haven’t done [programmatic native] because we are sensitive to our subscribers.”

ALM Media, a subscription-oriented B2B publisher, also eschews ads linking to outside content because it doesn’t want to waste the time of its wealthy audience.

“There is a relationship between our brand and a reader paying hundreds or thousands of dollars a year that makes the paid subscription experience worthwhile,” said David Saabye, chief digital officer at ALM Media. “I can’t guarantee that with a programmatic solution in place.”

Consequently, publishers that have significant subscription business take extra care with how they approach sponsored content creation.

The Globe and Mail looks closely at metrics like click-through rates and engagement rates for its sponsored content, which Saunders said is above average based on metrics from Moat, Polar, Chartbeat and Omniture.

It’s also looking closely at performance. “We’ve pivoted our sales organization to be more marketing-focused and understand the true [brand] KPIs you need to measure against,” Saunders said.

The Open Native Approach

Focusing exclusively on publisher-created sponsored content isn’t a viable option for most publishers.

“In a perfect world, it would be all custom, and we would create and execute all of it,” said Rich Sutton, CRO of Trusted Media Brands, which includes Reader’s Digest, Family Handyman and Taste of Home. “But that’s analogous to saying I would like to sell all my ads direct with no programmatic.”

For those outside of that top dozen or so publishers, other forms of native make sense, Sutton said. That includes putting links to brand-created content that links out in the feed, content recommendation and more.

“You’ve made a commitment to native, which means you’re going to have native [advertising] positions on your site,” he said. “You can have that position collapse, or serve a paying message unit in there.”

Publishers are also opening up to allow more brand-created on their sites. While many publishers have brand studios that author content for brands, that’s likely to change as brands become better content creators.

ALM Media, for example, does not permit links to outside content, but its sponsored content advertisers already write their own content.

These pieces feel more natural than a white paper, have more permanence than a sponsored event and are quicker to execute, Saabye said.

ALM authors content itself, but mostly has companies supply it because they’re so good at it. “The point for us has been to make sure this is an article that’s worth reading, just like what the rest of the editorial staff produces,” Saabye said.

Cooking Up Some Contextual Relevance

Reader’s Digest tries to make its experiences as contextually relevant as possible.

For instance, it adds native ad opportunities to its Taste of Home recipes by putting branded ingredients in recipes: Replace the generic cream cheese in a recipe with, say, Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It’s also making its recipes shoppable, showing which ingredients are on sale at stores nearby.

The automation and scalability of these native placements feel “programmatic,” but they don’t detract from the value of Taste of Home. On the contrary, the publication is betting native adds to that value by making it easier for a reader to shop for ingredients for a recipe he wants to make.

Sutton is also bullish on future developments in programmatic native technology Using context and audience information will allow precise delivery of content that currently occurs only with bespoke content created for an individual site.

He’s using a new Taboola widget that serves ads by taking the person looking at the page as well as the content of the page into account. “What we see are native positions that make sense,” he said. “With just a bit of intelligence, programmatic native can make it.”

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  1. Undeniably, both formats are here to stay. While I agree that most publishers would love to be able to fully monetize through sponsored (or custom) content, very few of them actually have the required sales force, processes and capacity to reach advertisers at scale to make efforts worthwhile. In the long run only a fraction of a percent of publishers will be able to build business on custom executions. For the majority of publishers, programmatic native monetization may be the only option.
    On the advertiser front, brands demand more targeting capabilities that naturally align with programmatic buying. This will further push the market towards programmatic distribution of branded content.

  2. Nice article with lots of interesting perspective, especially from publishers who often aren’t heard from as much in this space. I want to point out though that “native” is just a format, like display banners, flyovers, expanding rich media, etc.

    Native has 3 core principles: look/feel, context and behavior. Most native ad platforms today only handle the look/feel of the placement while ignoring the context (by serving direct-response ads that aren’t content and don’t fit the theme of the site at all) and behavior (by having ads just drive off site to some landing page).

    Programmatic isn’t really an issue as it just describes the method of executing the campaign. It’s also not that great considering how much process, latency, lack of transparency and fraud is involved in it. Regardless of how the demand comes in though, both brands and publishers have to recognize that the best user experience leads to best results and that only happens when following the principles above.

    There are already a few next-generation platforms today that are at the edge of this innovation of bringing together the best of the old adtech infrastructure and fusing it with data and content. We at Instinctive have run 100s of millions of impressions with thousands of pieces of long-form branded content that have delivered exceptional results and it’s all because of a better platform that allows us to follow these 3 rules at scale. The industry really can have it all – it’s just making sure to use the right tool for the job.