The seven deadly sins of native advertising

Todd Handy, VP, Advertising Strategy & Performance, DDM | @toddhandy | January 2, 2015

In an industry that’s disrupting and being disrupted, many may be missing out on one of the biggest disruptors — native advertising.

I know, I know. The holidays have just ended and the time off was hardly enough to compensate for how fried you were after budget season. But, now it's time to get back to work. And as you do, ask yourself: Have you implemented native advertising on your properties? If so, how’s it going? If not, why? And, while you’re thinking about it, ask yourself if you’re guilty of any of these seven deadly sins of native advertising.

1. Not doing it: Really? No, come on. Really? Look. I’m not asking you to be a lemming. I’m not asking you to “sell out.” I’m asking you to look at some simple facts. BIA/Kelsey says that while display advertising will continue to grow from 2012 to 2017, “in every year in the company’s forecast period, native spending will grow at a faster rate than display spending."

Even though display spending is increasing, Borrell says it’s targeted display that will grow, while ROS/untargeted display will decrease significantly. Is display dead? No. And it won’t die any time soon, as evidenced by the chart above. But publishers need to diversify their product mixes and look for innovation, performance and opportunity. Native advertising covers all three.

Penance: Implement native advertising on your site(s). Do it now.

2. Not understanding what it is. OK. I get it. Native advertising means many things to many people. We as a media industry can’t even agree on exactly what it is: native advertising; sponsored content; content marketing; advertorial; paid placement. Ugh! I’ll speak for myself and Deseret Digital Media. We consider native advertising to be engaging content featured in the content wells (queues) of our O&O properties, right alongside editorial content. We like the way Jay Rosen describes it:

Our native advertising product, BrandView, runs in the same placements as our editorial content. Because, it’s ALL content. Whether it’s produced by us on behalf of an advertiser, or produced by an advertiser and edited by us, or produced by one of our experienced journalists, it’s still content. Content is what we do. It’s why our audience comes back multiple times per day, multiple days per month. We feature native advertising side by side with editorial content, but we properly disclose it. The article/headline are disclosed as BrandView, the byline is typically the brand and we clearly disclose in the article itself that this is sponsored content.

Here’s the thing. There’s concern in the industry that publishers featuring native advertising are “tricking” our users — that we're "baiting and switching.” I could see that if we didn’t disclose. The FTC is concerned about that as well. But most of the leaders in native advertising disclose using a variety of methods. At DDM, we believe what Howard Luck Gossage said, "People don't read ads. They read what interests them. Sometimes it's an ad.” Here's proof that what Gossage said is true, at least in DDM’s case. The page-view average per editorial article on is 13,000. The page view average for a BrandView article on was around 13,000 earlier this year, but has recently settled around the 16,000 range. What do I take from that? We feature editorial and BrandView content in the same queue, in the same placements. We write headlines that capture users’ attention and their clicks. Sometimes what interests users is a BrandView article (ad). In fact, on average, 3,000 users are more interested in a BrandView article than in an editorial one.

So native advertising is this: quality, engaging content, displayed alongside editorial content, sponsored by an advertiser, which is merchandised in such a way that users will click the headline, consume the content and engage with it.

Penance: Define your implementation of native advertising, what it will do and how it will work. Then develop the product.

3. Confusing sponsored content with native display. Alright, in No. 2 above I said that we as a media industry can’t even agree on what native advertising is (and isn’t). That’s true. But let me help you with one clear distinction we draw. For DDM, BrandView is “sponsored” content. It’s engaging content sponsored by an advertiser. It is NOT pitchy, self-promoting or shilling. It stands alone as an article or video that the user consumes, engages with and often times shares socially. When BrandView content is shared socially, users following the referred link go straight to the article or video. They don’t come through our homepage queues. When BrandView content is consumed on our sites, though, users will see headlines in our homepage queues and will click on those that interest them. If they click on a BrandView headline, they are taken to an article on our site that contains text, video, or a combination of the two. This is an important distinction for how we do native advertising. They are not taken off our site. They aren’t immediately shown an ad. Users who click on BrandView content are conditioned that BrandView is content, and they expect the click on the headline to take them to content that they can consume, engage with and share if they’d like.

However, in the native advertising continuum is a format I call “native display.” Native display doesn’t take a user someplace else on a publisher's site. It doesn’t present the user with engaging content in the form of an article or video. It normally links off to the website of an advertiser, dropping the user on a landing page often designed in concert with the native display ads. Or not.

So, Todd, why the difference in your mind? I’ll tell you. At DDM we are conditioning our users that BrandView is valuable content, and that when a user clicks on it they will be presented with compelling content. Will they love every piece? Probably not. But they have developed trust in us that when we present them with a BrandView headline, there’s substance behind it. There’s a quid pro quo. Native display isn’t so. Native display trades on the trust users have developed in our BrandView product and before long those users no longer trust us and the BrandView name. Why? Because all native display does is move the traditional display ad, normally featured in the right rail, into the queue amid content. But the native display ad isn't content, it’s just an ad. And more often than not it's disguised as content. So when the user clicks on it and is taken offsite to a landing page designed to advertise a product or service, they lose trust in the property and its native advertising. There is no quid pro quo.

Penance: Don’t mingle sponsored content and native display. You can run both of them, but make sure that they are clearly delineated. And don’t violate the trust your users gain in your sponsored content by blurring the lines between it and native display.

4. Selling direct response instead of branding and thought leadership. On the face of it this one is easy. In practice, though, it gets very difficult. Most advertisers are not in the content business. They sell products, services, or both. They use advertising for awareness, call to action, preference, purchase intent, etc. So when they learn that they can work with you on some sponsored content, they logically expect that the content will drive awareness, call to action, preference, purchase intent and maybe even ring the cash register. Can you blame them? Advertising can be expensive. And, as John Wanamaker said many years ago, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” So advertisers, understandably, often want to fill their sponsored content with product benefits and features, calls to action, self-promotion, etc.

You can guess what happens when the publisher allows the advertiser’s sponsored content to be pitchy or shilling. Yep. That’s right. Those 16,000 average page views referenced above drop to 3,000, 2,000, 1,000 or less. Why? Sponsored content is still content. When is the last time you sat down to read a stack of press releases? Do you regularly read product manuals? Have you ever found yourself saying “what this article needs is more product descriptions, features, benefits, and three more calls to action?"

Native advertising is not direct response. Sure, at DDM we include 100 percent share of voice of all the ad units on the page for the advertiser. They can produce strong creative with great calls to action and engaging copy, and if the user clicks and is taken to a landing page or form or download, that’s great. But if that’s what the advertiser is looking for, we’ll sell them a display campaign. We just can’t guarantee that users will click on the ads in the content, and we also won’t alienate our users by running a piece of content that is direct response. Sponsored content needs to be about branding, thought leadership and building a long relationship with the user. It needs to be something that drives awareness and consideration in the user, but that isn’t expected to ring the cash register. Down the line the user may well make a purchase due, in part, to a trust built up through consuming sponsored content. But if that’s the driver, sponsored content isn’t the best vehicle for that advertiser. At DDM we have sponsored content pieces by personal injury attorneys, auto dealers, medical clinics and even local colleges. Users don’t transact regularly with those types of businesses. Some of those are once-in-a-lifetime transactions, or at the very least 3-5 years in between. If those advertisers were looking for their BrandView articles to drive sales today, or tomorrow, or even next month, they’d most likely be sorely disappointed. BUT, if their display ads can drive some incremental transactions, while their content builds rapport, trust and relationship, then it’s a win-win.

One of our most successful BrandView clients is a local grocery store chain that runs a weekly series of articles called “Ask a Chef.” Each week these articles include a recipe for a delicious culinary item. Users can also find the nearest store to them, or click on a display ad to order online. Is it possible that BrandView articles drive users to local stores, or online orders? Of course it is. Is that the measure of success of our product? No.

Penance: Don’t sell direct response, don’t measure direct response, don’t expect direct response. If some comes, be happy.

5. Not taking the lead in the creative process: There are two keys every publisher needs to keep in mind when producing sponsored content. First and foremost, you are a publisher. This is what you do. You've cultivated an audience, have a voice and style, and your users trust you. Don’t run a piece of sponsored content that alienates that audience, changes that voice and style, and violates the trust your users have placed in you. The sponsored content you produce needs to be consistent with the editorial content you produce in voice, style, etc. You need to write it for your audience just as your journalists write their editorial content for you audience. NEVER forget that. The sponsor may be paying for the content, but they are the advertiser and you’re the publisher. And if you risk your audience for any piece of sponsored content, good luck. Every piece of sponsored content you produce won’t be a home run. But your users will forgive you for that, if they recognize the voice, and maintain the trust. What users won’t forgive you for is if you allow your voice to be altered, or completely hijacked, by an advertiser who feels they know how to do your job better than you do. Don’t let that happen. EVER.

Second, you need to maintain final editorial control. Sure, Forbes allows advertisers to publish content directly through its CMS. Forbes’ clients also have editorial staff who write for their blogs, sites, magazines, etc. And those big brands have a vested interest in not being pitchy. The content can just blow back on them as well. Local media publishers who work with smaller advertisers can ill afford to allow editorial control to pass from them to their clients. Yes, the advertiser can write the article. Yes, they can even write the headline, but if it doesn’t look right to us, if it’s not in our voice, if we can tell it’s not going to be successful, for them or us, then we let them know we’ll make some necessary edits prior to running it. We’ll let them review it before it goes live, but we maintain the final edit, not our advertisers. It takes two to tango, but one must take the lead.

Penance: Take control of the creative and editorial process. Work with the advertiser but remember whose audience it is and who has the long-term relationship at risk. Come to the meetings with the advertiser with suggested articles and headlines that will help them see what you can do and how you’ll do it.

6. Not measuring performance against editorial content. I alluded to this earlier, but let me elaborate. As a digital advertising executive my job is to monetize the audience my content partners at DDM have developed. This audience comes back to us regularly for sports, news, weather, classifieds, etc. Each time they come they consume X number of page views. Each page view has Y number of ad impressions. If Z serves as the rate I charge for my display advertising, my revenue is calculated roughly as X*Y*Z. I don’t really have much involvement in X. I can drive users away if I run poor advertising that turns off our users. But if I take caution not to do that, I really can only help to NOT drive audience away, I don’t do much to drive audience to us. Our content folks are phenomenal at that! Now, the reason this audience comes to us is for our content. With the exception of KSL Marketplace, that content is predominantly “news” in nature. Some of it is hard-hitting, some feel-good, but no matter the content, the content team is very interested in what the audience is interested in and how to serve it to them. Our content team spends a lot of time understanding the audience and thinking of how to best serve it with the content we have.

With our BrandView content we do the same thing. We look at what kind of content is being consumer better/more often than other. We look at which times of day and which days of the week do better. We also measure everything we can to try to learn and inform us so that we continue to serve the best content our users have interest in, sponsored by our BrandView advertisers.

In the case of the editorial and BrandView teams, the success measures are very similar, and known to most digital publishers: page views, headline clicks and CTR, article views, time in article, social shares, etc. Whereas the content team normally doesn’t focus on display ad CTR, the BrandView team does, as well, because the display ads are served in concert with the sponsored content, and we want to have a holistic view of everything that’s working (or not) for the advertiser.

So the question is this: What is your digital newsroom measuring when it comes to their content? Whatever it is, you should measure the same with your sponsored content. You should benchmark the editorial content and then work to get your sponsored content at that same level — and then higher. The measurements, systems, platforms, etc. they use can be used to measure your sponsored content. You may need to add a few measurements (like ad impressions, clicks and CTR from your ad server, or scroll depth/percentage from your analytics tool, or audience analytics from third party audience measurement companies), but for the most part what you care about with sponsored content is how it it doing vis-à-vis your editorial content.

At DDM we’ve vetted many of the native advertising platform and analytics providers out there. We work with many of them. At the same time, we’re working to build an MVP (minimum viable product) of a native analytics platform to determine if we want to "build or buy." And, what are the minimum measurements we expect in our native analytics platform? You could probably guess them: headline clicks and CTR, article views, time in article, social shares, display ad impressions, clicks and CTR. We want to add a lot more — article level audience insights, scroll depth, comparisons to editorial content, story completions and many more. Here’s what one version of our thought process looks like: (this is a live MVP. Kudos to Devin Bunker for his work on this!)

Is there a lot more we’d like to add? Would we change the visualization? Are we happy with what this tells us? The answer to all three questions is “yes.” But that’s what an MVP does for you. It allows you to get something out there, play with it, use it, give feedback on and improve it. Notice, though, that this article had done — 15,000 page views in the first two days it was published. That means it’s “in the zone." It’s right there where other BrandView articles usually are and it’s sitting at or above many editorial articles.

Just to be fair and show that we have very strong editorial content, as well, I pulled an article that started a day after the BrandView article above did for comparison. This is a relevant and topical article about families filling a local homeless shelter overflow at Christmas time. Notice that it’s had nearly 31,500 page views since it was published. Not only is it well above the editorial average, it’s well above the BrandView average, and I couldn’t be more happy. Our content team does an amazing job, and we monetize these editorial articles with display ads. But it also gives the BrandView team a view into what can be done with just one article, and sets a high bar for our sponsored content to compete with.

Penance: Work with your content teams to understand what they do to drive traffic and audience engagement, learn from them and apply that to your sponsored content. Also, at very minimum use the same analytics they use for their editorial content to measure your sponsored content with the idea that the editorial averages are your baseline. Once you reach that baseline, set your sights higher and look to drive even higher engagement and value for your advertisers.

7. Not making it a visual experience. The last deadly sin is one that, frankly, we’ve been guilty of in the past. Not that we haven’t had some great visuals in our BrandView articles, it just hasn’t been a solid focus. Let’s face it. No one wants to read paragraphs and paragraphs when images can convey much of the same message and invoke emotion, interest and engagement. As the old adage says, “A picture is worth a thousand words."

Would you like to read my article about a soldier coming home from deployment and being greeted by his daughter? Or, would you rather look at this image?

It’s the same with sponsored content. Not only do we have to avoid being pitchy and shilling (see Deadly Sin No. 4 above), but we have to avoid being overly lengthy and wordy. In addition, we also have to ensure that the content is as engaging as possible, which requires involving as many senses of our audience as possible. So write a strong article. Or record an engaging video. Regardless, whatever our audience reads needs to be augmented by what they see and hopefully more what they feel. That’s engagement. It’s also the basis for social sharing, which is another key indicator and goal of sponsored content.

How do I know that images will help our BrandView content? I don’t know for certain. But in true DDM form, we’re testing it to see how much lift we get. One of the most recent articles that our BrandView Content Manager, Bobby Macey (@bobmacey) recently produced was "10 ways you might be killing your home Wi-Fi signal” sponsored by a national cable TV and broadband provider. Macey included many more images in the article than he might have done in the past. You can see for yourself below how the article has performed in the first four days after it was published.

Is this evidence that images improve sponsored content? No. Could this article have stood on its own without images? Probably so. But, the fact that this article has done almost 61,000 page views in four days tells me that it’s more engaging than other articles we’ve done in the past. And as an added bonus, because native advertising works well cross-platform, it’s entirely possible we’re getting better lift on this article due to a more visual nature for smartphones.

Penance: Don’t just write, engage! Include elements in your sponsored content which will increase interest, attention and a desire to share. The more you engage, the greater your opportunity to build and strengthen the audience.

In Closing: Whew, that's a lot, I know. What I also know is that at Deseret Digital Media we’re figuring a lot of it out as we go. We closely observe, and sometimes follow, some of the leaders in the space — Forbes, Quartz, and even BuzzFeed. We also have a roadmap, but as with any journey, having a map isn’t enough. One has to get out on the road and start driving to run into roadblocks, detours, obstacles, etc. So, as we look to a new year, may I suggest a New Year’s Resolution that every digital publisher should have on the list for 2015?

Just Do It. That’s the opposite of Deadly Sin No. 1. Of course, I don’t mean Nike. I mean gather your content and advertising and development teams and set a goal to build an MVP of a native advertising product. Set a due date, and make it soon (like Jan. 31!). Send the advertising team out to talk to some of their best advertisers and share with them the idea (take a few suggested articles and headlines along to whet their appetites). Send the dev team to the drawing board to take the current CMS and make it able to add any elements you’ll need for your native advertising model (shading of the article in the queue to set it apart as sponsored content, a question mark users can hover over to find out more about this new type of content on your homepage, etc.). And send your content team off to benchmark its editorial content and set some goals for sponsored content. While it's at it, it will need to come up with a writer or two that can produce some of this sponsored content for you, or you can reach out to someone like DDM’s BrandForge to help with that.

Altimeter visualized it with the image below a few years ago, and I agree with them. The only thing is, the time between these five stages can’t be years, it needs to be months, if not weeks, if not days.

And, let’s remember the oft quoted adage from George Santyana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let’s do this well. This tweet sums it up another way:

And if you think it’s better to just sit back and watch, this piece from Pando late last year sums it up well. Good luck!

I welcome your feedback. Tweet me at @toddhandy.