Q&A With New York Times Meredith Kopit Levien on Native Advertising Launch

Meredith_Kopit_Levien_NYTimes

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.

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Four Epic Native Advertising Fails

As a research analyst, I just completed a study of native advertising. The report, based on months of research and dozens of interviews, contains eight critical recommendations for successful native advertising campaigns.

We help our clients incorporate these recommendations in their native advertising strategies. What happens when best practices and tried-and-true practices are disregarded or ignored? That’s what iMedia’s editors asked me to share in this article. Not for the sake of schadenfreude really, but as a set of object lessons. So let’s take a look at a handful of native advertising fails and also map them to the whys of their shortcomings.

Best practices matter in native advertising a lot, and soon they’ll matter even more. Recently, 73 percent of Online Publishers Association members said they offer some form of digital advertising, a number that is swelling daily. Spending in the sector is expected to swell to $4.57 billion by 2017, though that’s a figure that bears some scrutiny, given “native advertising” does not yet bear the distinction of a formal, much less universally-agreed upon, definition.

Nonetheless, if we can agree that native advertising is a form of converged media (regardless of whether it appears on a publisher site or a social platform) that combines paid media (i.e., an ad) with owned media (i.e., content that isn’t “advertising-y” in nature), best practices and success elements do begin to emerge.

Trust and transparency

The Atlantic-Scientology debacle is the poster child of native advertising gone horribly — no, hideously — wrong. Under a small-ish “Sponsor Content” box, the site published a sunny and upbeat piece about the extremely controversial leader of the Church of Scientology: “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” An uproar ensued, causing the piece to be taken down in short order, and an apology was issued. In short order The Onion followed up with “SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement.”

In a further apology issued the following day, The Atlantic stated, “We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.”

What’s a best practice in this area? Disclosure, transparency, and trust are non-negotiable. Period. And come on, we’ve danced this dance more than once: With search engine advertising, paid blogging, and word-of-mouth marketing. Do we really even need to have this conversation? Disclose to readers that it’s a paid placement. Link to the relevant editorial policy. Create a channel for inquiry.

There. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?

Strange bedfellows

The Economist teamed up with Buzzfeed to create a promotional listicle entitled “Dare2GoDeep,” the stories behind the venerable publications’ serious hard news and policy coverage. The piece, and indeed, the pairing, was widely mocked as “inane” and “cringeworthy.” It is kind of hard to draw the line between one of the world’s most respected news magazines and a website known for its lists of all things LOL and feline.

Sales-y

At the heart of native advertising is content marketing, which is soft, not hard, sell. Last holiday season, “A Gift Guide for Surviving Your Family at Home This Holiday” on Gawker Media read more shill than article. The body copy doesn’t really deliver on the headline’s promise, which feels bait-and-switch.

Collaboration and earned media

I hate to single out Buzzfeed again (the publication does so much native advertising so very well), but last August the site was involved in an imbroglio that should have been nipped in the bud rather than allowed to spiral into scandal. A conservative anti-abortion group published its own listicle bashing Planned Parenthood in Buzzfeed’s then-new community section. The post violated Buzzfeed’s community guidelines, yet it wasn’t immediately taken down, causing a media, as well as social media, fallout. The Guardian followed up: “BuzzFeed is taking trolling to a new level by pandering to right-wing nuts.”

Please read the rest of this post on iMedia, where it originally published.

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Going Native

Native advertising.

Everyone’s talking about it, but what is it, exactly? It has something to do with ads that don’t look like ads, but rather provide a degree of value in terms of being content. In that sense, native advertising is certainly a form of converged media as it combines paid media (advertising) with owned media (content) – often with the goal of generating earned media (social interaction, UGC, etc.).

Yet brands have been paying publishers to run their own content since forever. Does that mean “native advertising” simply a neologism for what we used to call advertorial? Or branded content? Maybe it’s sponsored content?

If native advertising somehow differs from older models of advertorial, sponsored or branded content, where are the lines drawn? Does “native” necessitate some sort of technological framework to carry and/or distribute the content in question (à la products offered by The New York Times, or tech start-ups such as OneSpot or inPowered)? Does it mean a publisher’s in-house agency (think Buzzfeed, Gawker Media) was commissioned to come up with the creative?

Bottom line: The term “native advertising” raises more questions than it does answers.

The value proposition of native advertising is, however, clear in a digital environment of banner blindness and plunging clickthrough rates. Pre-roll ads are skipped or ignored, email subscriber rates are eroding. Given any kind of choice, consumers are saying a clear “no” to interruptive advertising.

Native advertising lies somewhere in bridging the divide between content marketing – a pull strategy – and plain, old fashioned advertising, which is interruptive. Somewhere in its definition is probably the fact of paying for space or time (the “advertising” part) is a fashion that’s “native,” i.e. organic, conducive to the user experience, non-salesy, and offers some sort of value in and of itself as an ad (entertainment, education, utility, for example).

Native advertising’s promise, therefore, is better performing ads – but only if metrics are defined that are “native” to “native.” DM goals likely don’t apply in this case. Highly customized ad solutions mean more revenue for publishers (and boy, can they use it now). Also, deeper creative engagements for agencies, and hopefully, a better user experience for consumers.

The fly in the ointment is that without a real definition of native advertising, it means anything you want it to mean. Or anything whoever’s trying to sell it to you wants it to mean. Confusion in the marketplace is not a good thing (though it can benefit certain constituents).

This is why, as a research analyst, my next project will be to define native advertising, as well as to map the landscape of products and technologies related to the practice. (I’m also part of an IAB taskforce that will work to define the term – it’s therefore important to note the research will be my own work, not that of a committee.)

As this project is just kicking off, I’d love to invite your input. What do you believe native advertising is? Isn’t? What are the important companies in the space? Please let me know, either via email or in the comments section.

I’ll report back soon. Watch this space!

A version of this post originally published on iMedia Connection

Image creditwww.bydewey.com

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Why the Future of Mobile Advertising is Native Advertising

reading-mobile-deviceOne reason it’s so hard to pin down mobile advertising is due to the fact that “mobile” is quite possibly the most imprecise term there is when it comes to adverting and media. Tablet? Yes. Phone? Indeed. E-reader? Laptop? Phablet? Sure. Also, that must-have thing that’s coming down the pike next.

The sizes, functions and purposes of a multiplicity of mobile devices vary greatly, meaning there literally cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to mobile advertising. However is there is one universal truth about mobile, that will hold as true in the future as it does today, it’s that real estate is limited on mobile screens – much more so than on other digital devices. And that’s what’s limiting mobile advertising.

Mary Meeker’s most recent state of the internet presentation proffered the much-cited statistic that ten percent of media consumption now occurs on mobile devices, yet mobile commands a scant one percent of digital revenues. Yes, this is where internet display advertising once languished, back in the day. Eventually things evened out.

Will mobile advertising repeat the pattern? Don’t be so certain that straight display advertising will ever gain the traction on mobile devices that it enjoys on devices connected to monitors and other, larger screens.

Disparate as the world of mobile hardware is, all mobile devices are linked by a common factor: real estate is scarce. Display advertising on mobile screens is proportionately more intrusive, annoying and unwelcome.

The “year of mobile” we’ve been talking about for more than a decade has surely arrived already (heck, an estimated 17.4 million iOS and Android devices were activated this past Christmas day alone). But the year of mobile advertising? It’s still a ways away.

What we’re waiting for is the rapidly growing trend of native advertising to spread more effectively to mobile devices and platforms, and we’re not there yet. Currently, most forms of branded content as advertising occur on publisher sites that help to create them (think Buzzfeed, New York Times, Boston Globe, Gawker Media). Technology from companies such as OneSpot and InPowered that pushes relevant, branded content into ad units are pretty nascent on the internet and don’t yet have mobile strategies. Facebook (as everyone knows) is working on the issue. Some have posited large-scale mobile players such as Samsung and Yahoo may tackle mobile native advertising this year.

In other words, hurry up and wait.

Will 2013 finally be the year of mobile advertising? I don’t think so, but that long-awaited era may be on the horizon. The solution to ads on mobile devices that consumers accept and value (as opposed to the 50 percent of clicks on mobile ads purely attributable to “oops“) will be content, not advertising driven.

 

 

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Pay to Play: Native Advertising Shakes Up Publishing Models

There are a ridiculous number of names for it: native advertising, custom content, sponsored content, branded content, content marketing, collaborative content. Or you can kick it old skool and go with plain, old fashioned “advertorial.”

Whatever you call it, getting brand-generated content onto the pages of “real” publishing properties is becoming a real business, albeit in many guises. It’s all part of rapid convergence of paid, owned and earned media.

New York Times-owned Boston.com is the latest in a fairly long line of publishers to sell sponsored blog posts under the rubric “Insights.” “Our advertisers, and particularly our smaller advertisers, have been creating their own content. They need to get it exposed. As much as 50% of small businesses are blogging. The one thing they want is to have people see their material,” as Boston.com’s executive director-business development explained it to Ad Age.

Boston.com aligns its advertisers’ posts in the appropriate editorial section, e.g. lifestyle or real estate.

Boston.com has joined a growing list of sites offering some form or another of custom content to advertisers, including Forbes, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker Media. Gawker is so high on the model that they maintain a list of top-performing sponsored posts to inspire and lure advertisers.

Content that morphs into ad units takes on other forms as well. inPowered (formerly Netshelter) is a new advertising product that turns “expert” content into a ad unit. Say you’re Samsung, and Engadget just ran a rave review of your latest smartphone, for example. inPowered turns that review into an ad that can be run on other publishers’ sites.

Arguably, another model of advertorial are those publishers whose business model makes them increasingly reliant on content contributed by outside experts, rather than their own editorial staff. What was long a trade publishing model is now commonplace on mainstream B2B sites, from content marketing plays such as American Express’ OPEN Forum, web pure-plays such as the Huffington Post, to established editorial brands, most notably Forbes. While arguably this isn’t advertorial because the contributors don’t pay the publisher to contribute (and in some cases are compensated, albeit never handsomely), the reality is this, too, is a form of content marketing. Contributors are selling their companies, professional services, domain expertise and personal brands.

“Native advertising” takes many guises, and an equal number of pricing models. Some publishers charges basic CPM or CPC rates. Others calculate costs based on positioning on the page, maintaining a “featured” position over a predetermined period of time, as well as additional and often premium pricing for adjacent ad units from the brand contributing the content (think brand “surround sound”). Sometimes the publisher will help create the content (think Buzzfeed), more often it’s incumbent on the advertiser or their agency both to conceive of as well as to execute the creative.

The real challenge of this type of advertising is an entire set of new standards and practices publishers must define as the traditionally inviolable wall between editorial and publishing becomes increasingly porous and permeable. It’s not as if sponsored, branded and contributed content shouldn’t happen. It should, but within limits and parameters it’s incumbent on the publisher for setting and enforcing to maintain and defend brand credibility while at the same time exploring new models.

Some publishers are do better at this than others. Before the ad or editorial teams open the doors to contributed or branded copy, publishers must define and commit to these eight critical points.

Set and maintain editorial standards: Every publisher has standards in place. Some, such as the New York Times, employ a public editor (sometimes called an ombudsman) to represent the needs and viewpoints of the reader and to critique editorial. Publications opening themselves up to native advertising and contributed content require someone in a similar role. This person almost certainly does not work in ad sales.

Create a style guide for guest contributors This is a good idea for corporate blogs and publications, too. A style guide sets expectations and streamlines submissions. What are accepted spellings for the publication (email or e-mail?). Do links spawn a new window, or take the reader off the site? How much white space should there be between an image and text? With expectations set, production goes a whole lot faster.

Edit, and don’t forget to copy edit Regardless of how thorough the style guide, contributed copy must always be subject to the publisher’s editing process. If staff contributors are subject to editorial scrutiny, it’s even more critical that non-professionals be fact and spell checked, as well as accountable for attributions, sourcing and veracity. Seems like a no-brainer, yet at least one very venerable brand posts contributed copy as-is. It’s not unwise, though this will vary by publisher, to also subject advertorial content to at least some degree of editing.

Never, ever open the CMS to outsiders A very prominent media brand that publishes a great deal of contributed “expert” columns allows its contributors to post their contributions directly in the CMS. The result? Pretty much what you’d expect. This memo went out to contributors last July:

**Reminder** Using expletives can offend and alienate your readers and hurt your credibility. Please don’t use foul language in your posts and be especially mindful to never use it in your headlines.

Don’t base compensation on link bait ability Many publications don’t compensate expert contributors. Others pay on a per-item basis. One very staid publisher, hoping to build traffic to their site, experimented with a model whereby contributors were paid based on the traffic their columns generated. Result? “National Equirer”-level headlines and content in a business publication.

If it’s paid, disclose that it’s paid Boston.com’s paid posts appear in a sidebar box prominently labeled “Special Advertiser Feature.” Gawker’s paid content runs under the rubric “Sponsored.” Content that SAP and Microsoft pay to publish on Forbes.com are not explicitly designated as advertiser content. Paid content is nothing to be ashamed of. But it is something to designate.

 Vet contributors The five Ws of reporting: “who, what, when, where, why?” are all perfectly legitimate questions to pose to content contributors and content advertisers. Publishers are not only entitled, but obligated, to ensure content running on their sites adheres to standards that will uphold the publisher’s own brand and ensure the value of the publication to readers and advertisers alike over the long term. It’s not only fair to ask these questions, it’s obligatory.

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