Native ad critics usually harp on the scale issue. Outside of platforms, the argument goes, true native formats that adapt to their environments don’t scale because they’re custom by definition.
A growing collection of startups, including companies like Nativo, Sharethrough and Publish2, are attempting to fix that with what are essentially ad networks for sponsored content. The irony is these companies are following a trail blazed long ago by those who helped the banner ad itself scale into a mass media option.
The hope is these networks will give content-based ad formats a measure of standardization and ease of implementation that will make buying them in large quantities as easy as running a massive banner campaign. That’s hardly the case now. Marketers and agencies typically have to work with individual publishers on a case-by-case basis to have their ads integrated, and that process quickly becomes clunky, costly and inefficient.
But now, instead of placing banner ads across a network of publisher sites on behalf of advertisers, native ad networks see an opportunity to do so with sponsored posts and articles. “Native advertising” might be on the rise, but that doesn’t mean the network model is going away.
Nativo, for example, is currently placing sponsored content across more than 1,500 publisher sites, including Reader’s Digest, Techdirt and Motor Trend, on behalf of brands like Ford, Toyota, Prudential, Intuit, Armani and others. Take this Merrill Lynch post about global financial trends that appeared on sites across Nativo’s network. On Entrepreneur.com’s homepage, the post appeared in its stream of editorial content but labelled as sponsored. After clicking the headline, the reader is taken to another Entrepreneur.com page with the 800-word piece of sponsored content. The experience is adapted for the other sites in Nativo’s network.
“We’re trying to make sponsored placements scalable. It’s about replicating the same execution a marketer would get one to one with a publisher across a range of different sites,” said Nativo CEO Justin Choi.
Entrepreneur.com said working with Nativo has opened up new inventory and revenue, and also exposed it to new advertisers like Merrill Lynch.
“It’s opened up opportunities we haven’t had before,” said Michael Frazier, the company’s director of ad operations. “It’s also a secondary source for revenue.”
It’s also easy. Entrepreneur wasn’t forced to open an expensive “content studio” like big publishing operations at The Huffington Post, Vox Media and Gawker. By plugging into an ad network, Entrepreneur can add the offering without committing too many resources.
“We looked at this as a way to be where advertisers want us to be,” said Charles Muselli, Entrepreneur’s vice president of business development. “We wanted to see where market was going, so this seemed like a good first step.”
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Nativo isn’t the only company that claims to be helping native ads scale. BuzzFeed already pays to place links to its sponsors’ content across a range of partner sites including The Awl and Cracked.com, as well as social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
But according to Choi, a user clicking a piece of content on The Awl is probably expecting to consume a piece of content on The Awl site, even if it’s sponsored. “We want to make ad content that can be consumed in the same way as the rest of the content on a publisher’s property. We’re not taking users off the site or to a landing page,” he said.
Publish2 is working on a similar product, which it says will help automate the placing of sponsored content across a range of properties.
Then there’s Sharethrough, which has built what’s essentially an ad network for embedded video content. Advertisers like Adobe and Old Spice use it to help paste their YouTube-hosted video on sites including Forbes.com and Business Insider. The company has recently launched what it calls “in-feed” ad units, too, which allow publishers to place video content and links to advertisers’ sites in their content streams.
Sharethrough’s current business looks more like a traditional ad network than Nativo’s approach, but its president, Patrick Keane, said it’s looking beyond video to other types of content, too, including things like Spotify playlists and even embedded tweets. Regardless of the exact approach, he thinks the days of the display ad are numbered, and that means advertisers will increasingly look for ways to distribute different types of content at similar scale.
“Native ads are just going to be part of the marketing mix,” he concluded.
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