5 tips for strong native advertising

"If we’re the best this industry has to offer, we’re all in trouble," Todd Handy joked with the audience after a glowing introduction at Local Media Association’s Native Advertising Summit. 

While the concept of native advertising isn’t new (think Soap Operas sponsored by P&G, or old-school advertorials), many at the summit were just starting to see its potential and are scrambling to craft strategies around it. Those of us a little further along in the process have yet to report any silver bullets, however, we are starting to see what is and isn’t working. Let me share five takeaways from the summit along with our own experiences with native advertising over the past year.

1. Do It

First things first, I believe this is something you should do. I was surprised as LMA president Nancy Lane kicked off the summit by asking the 30+ media organizations represented how many of them already had a native advertising product and only two groups said yes – both of which (Deseret Digital Media and The Elkhart Truth) presented at the summit. The rest, I assume, were there because they wanted to learn more. Perhaps they know they should pursue native but are unsure how.

Photo by  ROBIN WORRALL  on  Unsplash

When done properly, native articles (polls, quizzes, video or infographics) flow through your content queue just like editorial pieces. They’re clearly labeled for transparency, but the placement is organic. This is key.

It’s no secret that with the growth of mobile, display dollars are dying. Your challenge is to monetize mobile. Your advertisers’ challenge is to reach an increasingly mobile audience. Native solves both problems while delivering valuable content to your readers.

2. Focus on audience, not on your advertiser

I get it. I understand the temptation. The #1 car dealer in your market just wrote a large check for a six-month campaign. They are excited to get going and the first article they want you to publish is why readers should buy the latest model on the lot. Our advice – don’t do it. The more you focus on the advertiser, the less it will resonate with the audience. It may seem counterintuitive at first – especially to your advertiser who is used to crafting ads all about themselves and their products – but as soon as you shift the focus from the advertiser to the audience, suddenly you’re offering something of value. Suddenly the advertiser wins by establishing themselves as an authority and associating themselves with something truly valuable to the reader. David Arkin with GateHouse Media told attendees at the summit they can’t approach this content thinking it’s like old advertorial content. This is a new way of thinking, he said.

Take these examples from StateFarm and BuzzFeed. They’re crafted to fit the voice and style of BuzzFeed (list form and lots of images). This is what their audience expects. While StateFarm sponsored the articles, they have nothing to do with insurance. If you look at the whole campaign (and we recommend focusing on campaigns with your advertisers as opposed to one-off articles) you’ll see a trend. They are producing valuable content, focused on a specific demographic of BuzzFeed’s audience. A demographic that StateFarm is also interested in reaching. Done this way, native advertising stories will add value to your readers and raise the profile of your advertising brands.

3. Who writes this stuff?

One challenge media organizations face when considering native is deciding who should write it. Presenters at the LMA summit cautioned against the idea of having staff journalists writing your native stories. You probably recognize the conflict of interest. What may be less apparent is that it should also be a different type of story. Your journalists – experts at using facts to report on multiple sides of an issue – may not be well suited for writing these audience-driven articles.

Friends in the industry have reported success in hiring freelance writers or with companies like Ebyline. We use Native Ad Works for their expertise and authority in the world of native advertising in news media. Our advertisers and media partners are benefiting from his experience and strategic insight.

4. Hire a native advertising strategist

A recurring theme at the summit was the idea that native advertising stories are not – and cannot be – presented as a blatant sales pitch or the typical fact-based editorial piece as mentioned above. To help prevent this, our thinking is that someone needs to sit between advertising and editorial to help make key brand, editorial, and advertising decisions. We created a native advertising strategist position and charged him to help with customer support, sales presentations, and reporting. He also works directly with Native Ad Works for all of our content needs. He reports to both our VP of Advertising Strategy and our VP of Content.

Seeing this in practice, I’m convinced this should not be a side-task you try to add to an existing employee’s already full plate. Find someone who can make native advertising their sole focus. Ideally, this individual will have an eye for content quality, but should also help in ensuring the advertiser’s brand is elevated as part of the overall campaign. It’s a tricky job and one that can’t be relinquished to your editorial or sales teams.

5. Report what you sell/analytics

Todd received a lot of questions at the summit about analytics and what to report back to your advertiser. Remember, native is a lot different from direct response advertising. It is not pitching a specific product, or even directly pitching the advertiser. That’s one of the reasons we recommend campaigns over single articles. So, what data can you provide the advertiser to show the campaign is working?

“You have to at least measure the metrics you sold to the advertiser,” Todd told attendees.

His meaning? If you are using time spent per article, scroll depth, page views, and uniques as points in your value proposition to advertisers, you better at least report on those analytics. That’s a start. Full native advertising analytic solutions worth looking at include Chartbeat, Parse.ly, DistroScale, MediaVoice, and others.

Native requires trust. Your advertiser needs to trust you to create a campaign that serves their needs while not blatantly promoting them. If you give into an advertiser’s pressure and allow a piece to cross that line, you’ll lose your readers’ trust. It can be a delicate balance, but it’s worth the effort. 

We’re truly excited about this opportunity to better serve our audience, monetize mobile, and help our advertisers do the same.

Guest author: Jake Berry | Former Business Development, Publisher Solutions, Deseret Digital Media