local media insider

When the best piece of journalism you read last week is sponsored by a burrito

Alisa Cromer
2014 Native Advertising Summit asks, "What's the story?".

At last week's awesomely content rich, Native Advertising Summit, produced by  Local Media Association, a smallish group of attendees was almost giddy with the new possibilities offered by native advertising programs.

Here's a round-up of what we heard: 

• Native advertising is the new black. The chop-licking started with expressions of palpable relief from media execs at selling anything against news content that isn't a banner ad.

Rick Ducey, managing director of BIA/Kelsey, pointed out that "You are 475.38 times more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad," while native advertising is experiencing hockey stick growth.

Almost every major media company now has a native program and a variety were in attendance.

Speakers included David ARikin, VP of content at Gatehouse, which is building a new content and design center in Austin.  There was even a radio company or two.

• Content that is not good doesn't work. All speakers with experience in native agreed "It has to be excellent" and said they are picking up tips from BuzzFeed.

One digital agency, SpeakEasy had to cancel a story for a sports-oriented client because the newsroom had independently come up with the same one, "Top ten places to watch the World Cup."

Biggest concerns from a quick poll of the audience was "crappy content" and dilution of the brand.

• Customers read but dislike native content. The annoying paradox of native advertising is that if correctly done click-through rates to stories can be, frankly, fantastic.

But in the end, readers sometimes feel duped or informationally glutted wandering down a rabbit-hole of sponsored content.

The day I got back, a friend sent me this pertinent quote:

"Everything was going well until John realized that the hilarious list of management failures he was reading was sponsored by a burrito."

(I also surfaced a Tweet, Disrupt Burrito Journalism, but can't figure out what this means).

• Great jobs for repurposed journalists. The firewall between those who write  flagship news and those who write content marketing has created a new employment boom for displaced and repurposed journalists, typically feature writers.

• Clarity around native advertising is ...not. Conversations about native ads typically begin with some kind of clarification about "what are we talking about."

This conference did, too.

The first speaker explained that Google AdWords and Facebook sponsored updates are the first form of native advertising and gave a list of 24 types of it.

And if there was a hint of guilt in the room, one speaker pointed out that all content is sponsored content, anyway.

An IAB task force has actually narrowed native content into six kinds of ad units , including: in-feed, recommendation widgets, promoted listings, paid search and in-ad formats.

• Labeling confusion continues. All speakers at the summit agreed on the need to clearly label, but not how to do it.

A "sponsored story" can be written by flagship media staff and sponsored by an advertiser; written by a paid content staff, or written by the advertiser itself. So does each require a different label?

An IAB task force took a stab at defining how to label, but their definitions are too abstract to provide concrete direction.

Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President of Public Policy, Newspaper Association of America, noted that the FTC sent a shot across the bow when they targeted ten faux news sites (Acai berry promoters, etc.) as deceptive advertising. Not much happened next. In 2013 the FTC sent a notice of guidance to search engines that labels and visual cues on paid content should be noticeable.

Since then, Boyle said, the FTC has been in waiting mode, expecting the media industry to come up with some self-regulatory labeling standards.

But, he said so far the industry is in no hurry to create overly specific guidelines, due to worry that the feds will use their standards to regulate content. Meanwhile, many media said they were interested in distributing native content through some of the most notorious non-labelers, Outbrain included.

• Follow and un-follow rules are also still unclear. One native agency speaker said he continues to lobby his Google contact to allow links from native ads that Google will follow.

In a subsequent "hallway" conversation, two expert speakers disagreed about what failing to mark native links "unfollow" will cause: Does it lower the media site's search ranking on Google, or merely cause the media site to be dropped out of Google's newsfeeds? Either way, it's a no no.

For those new to the issues, if a standard link from a piece of content returns to a commercial site, rather than legitimate news content, it's penalized by Google. There is a basic discomfort from readers when links in stories go to a commercial website, so Google is trying to prevent this experience. Media who post native content can counter this by placing a piece of "no follow" code in the link.

• Analytics is still a conundrum. Todd Handy, VP, Digital Business Development and Advertising Products, Deseret Media, said the most important things to tract are article page views and scroll depth - which  advertisers consider proof of story reads - followed by shares, but that advertisers also expect click-throughs.

Time on site is also important to show, and can be tracked via Omniture. But not even Deseret is happy with their tracking mechanisms; the company currently tracks 22 different analytical elements for high end native advertisers... on A Google Docs spread sheet. 

Deseret is also an alpha-tester for  Chartbeat's new platform that tracks native,  but Handy says platform is still buggy and currently too expensive.  The pricing model is based on traffic so a mega-site like KSL.com would have to pay something like $8,500 a month, he said.

• Pricing native is an art, not a science. There are three ways to price - bundling, sponsorships and CPM.  82% of all native ads are priced in bundles and sponsorships, but Handy noted that advertisers - these are large companies - back out the CPM pricing anyway. So be prepared to "back up" package pricing with  CPM analysis  that includes all promotional sources, including views on high traffic channel fronts where the story lives for whatever time period (typically a week), social posting and network distribution.

We did not hear anyone charging less than $1,500 a month, for a program. Deseret's packages start at $2500 for a piece of content; Speakeasy, a content and social marketing-focused  agency formed by the Dallas Morning News, starts its packages at $3000 a month. The Houston Chronicle has native accounts in the $250,000 a year range.

• Partnerships abound. ContentThatWorks, a company we've reviewed before as a provider of niche channel content, has gotten in to the custom content creation game, and SpeakEasy and SearchInfluence are also offering to partner with media for native ad and/or content marketing programs. The Dallas Morning News, on the otherhand,  partnered with a local agency to form Speakeasy. The local agency supplies agency management expertise, the newspaper supplies sales and promotional assets and the agency staff does the writing and fulfillment and has a team of hunters to support sales.

In conclusion, overall this was a great summit. Many thanks to the producers who did a fantastic job of programming, the right people were there and we'll be covering an array of native advertising plays in the future.

We also encourage media to be less timid about labeling, and more timid about distributing native content on networks like Outbrain, that fail to "noticeably" label across the web.  These recommended story bots are the worst culprits in confusing readers by mixing unmarked native content with journalism on news pages even at prestigious sites like MSNBC. This practice needs to end.

But that's for another post.

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including  LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded  Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

native, content marketing, summit, local media association


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