All prognostications for 2014 (including my own) point to native advertising as A Big Thing to watch this year – and it is. The FTC’s December workshop thrust native into the spotlight, but nothing has amplified the fact that native advertising has arrived more than the New York Times launch of Paid Posts, its native product that launched this week with Dell as the first advertiser.
Late as the Grey Lady may be to the party (virtually all other members of the Online Publishers Association already have some form of native advertising on offer), the Times is the Times; a standard bearer in media, publishing and journalistic best practices.
Native advertising has been both delayed and controversial at the newspaper of record. Executive Editor Jill Abramson has expressed strong reservations. Publisher and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. very recently distributed a native advertising “manifesto” to staff.
So with the new product finally launched, I caught up with the Times’ EVP Advertising Meredith Kopit Levien to pose some questions about native advertising at the Times. Most are based around the best practice recommendations in my recent research on the topic of native advertising (download available here).
Q: Native advertising is highly labor intensive and requires “feeding the beast” with content. Your first advertiser, Dell, is led by Managing Editor Stephanie Losee, who has a very strong editorial background. Will the Times have difficulties finding other clients up to this challenge?
Levien: We see a lot of clients who have developed their own newsrooms or who have always-on content strategies. Social media gave everybody the opportunity to be a publisher. The amount of maturity in the marketing is growing. There are a whole lot of marketers who have an always-on content strategy. Using that in conjunction with the Times’ content division is how we’ll produce content. Intel [another enterprise with a very mature content organization] and a handful of others will launch this quarter.
Q: What formal policies does the TImes have in places around church/state divisions?
Levien: We’ll establish more over time. The brightest, clearest, most important is the newsroom is the newsroom. It does not touch [Paid Posts]. That will not change. That’s an important separation to keep. The others fall out from that. Also, Paid Posts carry a label and full disclosure.
Q: The Times is hiring freelancers to write Paid Post content. Can these same freelancers also write for the editorial sections of the paper?
Levien: That’s an evolving discussion.
Q: Dell’s commitment is three months. What about other advertisers’ commitments? And given this is a premium product, will you limit how many advertisers can run Paid Posts at any given time?
Levien: We are establishing minimums. We don’t want to do this as a one-off. We also require that all content be original, not repurposed for the Times. We’re not in any danger of the consumer thinking there’s too much of this on the site.
Q: If advertisers can’t bring their own content in, can they get your content to-go, so to say?
Levien: Once we co-produce the piece, the marketer can do with that what they want – the marketer has ownership. That’s the to-go model: using our content for their purposes.
Q: What metrics is the New York Times tracking to gauge the success of this program?
Levien: We are using an incredible vendor named SimpleReach. They have built a custom metrics dashboard. They give a marketer the same metrics the newsroom uses: pages, views, etc., also social referrals. How much traction is the content getting compared to editorial content? Secondly, is it trending on the social web, and if it is, what can we do to amplify it?
Q: Many publishers offering native advertising solutions, like Hearst and Buzzfeed, are offering training and educational programs to advertisers and agencies. Will the New York Times follow suit?
Levien: Certainly in the early months we’re going to do collaborative education with the partners we bring on. It’s not out of the question we wouldn’t turn that into a program. We have a lot of knowledge about how content moves through our platform.
Q: There’s a great deal of role confusion when it comes to native advertising. Brands, their advertising agencies, PR agencies – everyone is jostling for position in this space. Who do you anticipate you going to work with?
Levien: There is much more transition that will happen between paid owned and earned media. We’re mostly working with the brands, but there’s a huge role for the ad agencies and the PR agencies. Lots of brands have agencies who are helping to add to their content capabilities. We’ve tried to organize in a way that’s friendly to an agency buying.