Native advertising and a really strong bullpen


My 12 years in Chicago left me with two life-long loves: deep dish pizza and the Chicago Cubs. Summer 2016 is a good time to be a fan of both (well, it’s always a good time to be a fan of deep dish pizza). The 2016 Cubs are must-watch TV in Chicago, and a large portion of the city is glued to every pitch.

During a recent telecast, the manager strolled to the mound to make a pitching change. As is customary on the Cubs telecasts, the announcers informed me that we were witnessing a "Midas Tire and Auto Service call to the pen."

As the reliever ran in from the bullpen, I actually said out loud to myself, "Thank you Midas Tire and Auto Service for bringing us relievers that are actually capable of holding a lead!"

I have no knowledge of the inner workings of the Cubs marketing department, but I have to believe that selling in-game sponsorships (the sports world equivalent of native advertising) for the 2016 Chicago Cubs is about as difficult as selling golden ticket-bearing Wonka bars. The Cubs have become the most compelling story in sports, and you don’t need fancy metrics to explain to marketing departments why they want their brand to be associated with it.

Obviously, this wasn’t always the case. The Cubs were in the midst of a 108-year-long World Series drought, and a particularly painful recent three-year stretch produced some of the worst baseball ever witnessed in a sports-crazed town. Ratings sagged, profits dwindled and attention went elsewhere. Even (gasp!) to the crosstown White Sox. Ughh!!

Photo by  Blake Guidry  on  Unsplash

Photo by Blake Guidry on Unsplash

I can imagine Cubs marketing managers during those years being asked by upper management what they could do to help them reach their sponsorship goals and them mumbling under their breath, "Build a better team and play better baseball!"

When faced with lagging sponsorships and advertising, the organization could have responded one of three ways:

1. Throw up their hands and say in-game sponsorships just don’t work. It’s a failed model that has no hope of producing the kind of revenue we envisioned. The excuses were already built in:

a. We could never compete with the NFL; they're too big. They own all the major sports sponsorships in town.

b. Young people have no attention spans. They don’t get baseball. The audience is dwindling and there is nothing we can do about it. There are too many entertainment options in this town.

c. Sponsors are too impatient. They don’t understand the nuances of baseball nor do they appreciate the important role the game has played in America for over a century.

d. There is no way we can demonstrate direct ROI for these sponsorships.

2. Yield to short-term revenue pressures and promise sponsors a guaranteed number of eyeballs even if it damages their own brand and ruins the fan experience.

It could be done you know. All they would have had to do is allow a sponsor to run onto the field after the first out of innings 3, 5 and 7 and stand between home plate and the pitchers mound with a bullhorn shouting whatever message they choose for as long as it takes until every eye in the stadium was fixed on them. This process could be repeated during every game until the total number of eyeballs was delivered (or until fans started employing their own “ad-blockers” by body-slamming the sponsors every time they saw them make their way towards the infield, whichever comes first).

I know, I know. This sales proposition is too absurd to even consider.

3. Build a better team and offer the fans a more compelling story.

Fortunately for the lucky sponsors of 2016 Cubs baseball and long-suffering Cubs fans everywhere, the organization seems to have chosen the last strategy.

The seeds of doubt

We’ve already begun to hear whisperings in the local publishing industry that native advertising is doomed. We’ve started writing its obituary even before it has graduated from grammar school. The self-fulfilling prophecies of failure have already begun and we have started to lay the foundation for the excuses we will use when it does.

We’ll blame it on Google, Facebook, millennials, short-sighted and unsophisticated SBA’s, other brands that have poisoned the waterhole, financial pressures, and inertia. We’ll do whatever it takes to be able to return to what we know and not what we have to do in order to compete in a more complex world.

I’m convinced that if we fail at native advertising it will be because:

1. We didn’t tell compelling enough stories.

2. We didn’t respect our readers or their user experience.

No other excuse holds water.

Don’t listen to the naysayers

I don’t buy the doomsday scenario. I’m convinced that superior storytelling makes native advertising a “can’t miss” proposition, and I’m also convinced that no industry in the world is better positioned to tell compelling stories than ours. Think about it. It’s what we do. Media in its purest form brings brands together with consumers by telling compelling stories. Our businesses have always depended on it.

Recent surveys have shown that the biggest reason brands renew native advertising is the quality of the stories they are sponsoring. The second reason is the quality of the experience in working with the provider and distant third is direct metrics and analytics.

Let’s not sell our advertisers short. They get it. They understand marketing. They grasp the ideas of brand lift and thought leadership. We just need to give them a reason to believe we can deliver both. We need to tell better stories.

Our corporate culture has encouraged us to look at our own shortcomings when evaluating an underperforming story and not start playing the “blame game.” We celebrate wins and get inspired by creative, compelling storytelling produced by our own team as well as those of others in the industry. We’ve actively sought talented people that can tell stories through words, graphics, memes, video, etc.

We’ve embraced the idea that people learn differently, are moved differently and seek stories through different mediums and platforms. We view it as liberating and exciting and challenging. We trust that our readers understand the business model behind publishing and will support sponsored content as long as we deliver them compelling stories and respect their user experience.

We’ve been at native advertising for several years now and it has become a vital part of our ongoing digital transformation, allowing us to connect with our advertisers and our readers in ways we never imagined. We think the best days of native advertising are to come as long as we continue to tell better stories and continue to protect and improve the user experience.

This is no time to retreat or to wave the white flag when comes to native advertising. In fact, it’s time to take a look at the team we’ve built and the product on the field and recommit ourselves to continually improving both.

As we establish or re-establish ourselves as the standard bearers for compelling storytelling in our markets, we’ll win the business. Of this, I have no doubt.

Ryan Stephens | General Manager, Native Ad Works