How The Atlantic gets people to spend more than 4 minutes on its native ads

The Atlantic took a user-friendly approach when it redesigned its site in April, hoping that, perhaps counterintuitively, giving people less to click on would lead them to spend more time there.

That approach helped boost the audience, but it’s also improved the performance of its native ads, according to the publisher. The click-through rate has tripled, with people spending four to five minutes on native ad posts, the Atlantic said.

But don’t take the Atlantic’s word for it. Ad measurement firm Nudge confirmed that since the redesign, the Atlantic’s native ads are getting shared more on social platforms and that they now outperform BuzzFeed and Mashable in terms of the time readers spend on them.

This Qualcomm post, for instance, was shared 41,000 times on Facebook and 450 times on Twitter, according to Nudge. Another, for Boeing, was shared more than 7,000 times on Facebook and 319 on Twitter.

The Atlantic’s time spent surpasses the industry average as measured by native ad platform Polar, which says the average time spent across devices on native ads is two minutes and 41 seconds, although that varies widely by content category, from about two minutes in news to four minutes in the finance category.

Nudge also found the Atlantic has decreased its reliance on StumbleUpon, a service that’s popular with publishers to get more exposure for their editorial and native ads, but which has been criticized for yielding superficial views. The publisher has moved its focus to Facebook and other social networks, which it says has paid off in engagement.

The Atlantic’s current design reduced the number of native ads readers will see, but they’re bigger, so they stand out more. Many publishers have staffed up to create so-called native, but getting people to click on them, especially when they’re prominently labeled as ads, can be a hard sell.

At the same time, the Atlantic has hired 20 percent more people at its in-house marketing arm, Re:think, this year to inject more design and interactivity into the campaigns. The results have included campaigns like a series for Qualcomm that included original illustrations and prompted readers to click to see more information and videos showing the art being made. Tweaks like this have helped make native bring in 60 percent of the Atlantic’s total ad revenue in 2014 and fuel a 30 percent increase in total ad revenue so far this year.

“It’s a lot of things at once,” said Hayley Romer, vp and publisher of the Atlantic. “The redesign was focused on the reader; that’s paid off. We also rethought how we integrated native into the site. We’ve absolutely increased our emphasis on utility, making it something they do want to engage with.”

Engagement is an important measurement, but the next step for publishers is to go further and gauge whether native influences a brand’s image or people’s propensity to buy. The Atlantic’s numbers also raise a question about whether people actually think they’re reading an ad or editorial content.

For a study in July, content marketing platform Contently showed people native ads in the Atlantic and six other publishers. In the Atlantic’s case, almost half (47 percent) of respondents said they thought the Atlantic native ad was editorial content. (For the other publishers, readers were even more confused; in five of the seven cases, the majority of people thought the ad was editorial.)

Part of the issue with the Atlantic could be that the label identifying the content as an ad disappears as readers scroll down the page.

How to make native ads that are as appealing as editorial content but still carry the advertiser’s branding is something publishers haven’t fully come to terms with. But the risk is that if people think they’re being fooled, the publisher’s credibility could suffer.

Romer defended the Atlantic’s labeling, saying it’s always clearly labeled its ads, as “sponsor content” at the top of the page, and was early in posting its native ad guidelines on the site.

Image courtesy of The Atlantic.