It’s understandable why publishers like the idea of what’s being called “native advertising,” as extolled here by Fred Wilson as the reason Tumblr is more than just a hipster GeoCities.
Will this save content? It would be nice to think so. It seems sadly clear that with the rate pressure from infinitely expanding inventory, display advertising as currently practiced isn’t going to save quality publishing.
The Atlantic launched its new Quartz business news product (at qz.com) without any of the usual advertising placements. Instead, “sponsored stories” appear in the feed of items as (if?) you scroll down web pages. There are branded panels (well, some of them look a lot like ads) from the names you usually see advertising during the Sunday-morning politcal shows, or (less and less frequently) in the pages of the big-name newspapers. This one from Credit Suisse seems to be talking about Lindt Chocolates which somehow (it isn’t obviously clear) has benefited from Credit Suisse’s support.
This is upscale “native” nicely done. Despite the buzz about this stuff – most notably generated by BuzzFeed, which seems to be the most energetic at finding and selling brand affinity between staples like Velveeta and Campell’s Soup and internet memes – we’ve all been doing it for years.
Almost every juicy media brief asks for ideas to dress up the client’s plain old ad buy, pretty much the way every recruiter’s CEO job spec asks for a superhero. In the 1990s, our crew at Time in East Asia was among the best I’ve ever worked with at pleasing big advertisers like Toyota, Canon, Cathay Pacific, Philips and Nokia and gaining budget from TV and other magazines. In the last few years, challenged by a large reach disadvantage, the team I worked with at Future U.S. made big inroads by creating custom videos and sweepstakes that ran across both its magazines and websites to generate pre-orders and extra excitement ahead of major game releases.
Ultimately, though, I’m not sure custom tailoring will save the day for digital display advertising. Custom solutions in print or broadcast drive market share and profitability, in large measure by justifying the handsome rates that the host medium starts with. The solutions don’t often get a lot of rigorous quantitative analysis after the fact, but media buyer and client are happy enough with an attractive package price, a few follow-up numbers, and often some kudos from industry peers, clients and especially bosses.
Online, these kinds of messages clearly have some appeal vs. the constraints of banners, and they nest in content environments in a natural way when so many online placements continue to jar, annoy or otherwise interfere with what a user wants to do. But do they perform? And will they continue to perform as they become more plentiful?
Buyers of these efforts can discover exactly how many people pay attention to their carefully-crafted splashes, but will still be challenged to quantify the impact on their objectives. Even if they do perform, they remain relatively costly and complicated to create, implement and track. By their very nature they don’t scale across publishers, and it’s hard to see how they ever can given how deeply the integrate into any publisher’s offer.
It’s easy to see why, despite it all, TV continues to attract so many big bucks. You make an ad once in a format that can run across hundreds of networks for weeks at a time, you control the story and the placement, and your agency makes at least a little money. You kind of ignore the wastage and the zapping and the cord-cutters because, after all, everyone else seems to, too. And maybe more often than most digerati would like to admit, you really score for your product and your customers.