How publishers make native ads newsy

Native advertising was supposed to be marketers’ answer to banner blindness by creating ads that consumers would want to read and share. But by the time a native ad gets through all the necessary approvals and is shaped in a way that can scale, the result is often evergreen — and bland.

But a handful of publishers are trying to create native ads that play off the news cycle, betting that the more timely the post is, the better its chances of being read and shared. There are limitations: It is labor-intensive and hard to scale. “You really have to be resourced and in a philosophical place to be able to respond in a timely enough manner to play in the news cycle,” said Mark Howard, CRO of Forbes.

And as the history of real-time marketing disasters show, marketers have to know when it’s appropriate for their brand to weigh in. “The mistake a lot of content marketers make is creating content that is outside of what would be acceptable for that brand,” said Todd Sawicki, CEO of Zemanta, a native ad platform. “The problem is assuming that every event or news cycle needs a comment.” And newsy native ads may be suited to top-of-the-funnel messages, but more brands are moving to classic brand-tracking metrics to evaluate the success of their native ads.

So with the caveat that not all brands can pull it off, here’s how four publishers are marrying native and the news.

Bloomberg Media Group
The financial publisher wanted the quality of its native ads to be as good as editorial content, if not better. “It’s always a challenge to think about how we can engage people in native content, working against the sponsored content slug,” said Zazie Lucke, head of global marketing at Bloomberg Media. “It has to meet the bar of editorial, and it has to be engaging, and in some cases it has to be even more engaging to get over the hump of being sponsored content.”

So Bloomberg came up with a product called Riding the News late last year that would respond to breaking news. Dedicated content and data employees pull trending topics in the advertiser’s industry and meet frequently with the client to act quickly on the news. For an asset-management company doing business in Japan, for example, Bloomberg responded to Japan’s quantitative easing announcement with a story within a week that juxtaposed that country’s experience with that of the U.S. (Bloomberg said it wouldn’t name the client because it didn’t have approval to do so.)

The Washington Post
The Post introduced a product called BrandConnect Perspective, an extension of its native ad platform BrandConnect. Perspective lets an advertiser run a piece of commentary alongside Post opinions. Bayer was the first to use the product, for a viewpoint attesting to the safety of modern agricultural practices. The paid posts run with less editing than a typical native ad, which enables the advertiser to get its message out faster, said Jed Hartman, CRO of the Post. “They send us a piece on a topic that’s in the news, and we’d run it as is with very little editing. If we do a lot of work on our side, there can be a lot of back and forth, and then you miss the news cycle.”

The Wall Street Journal
Not every brand is experienced enough with branded content to respond to breaking news, so the Journal advises them to tee up content around predictable or perennial news like sporting events and elections. Zurich did just that in two sponsored posts, here and here, that were tied to the World Economic Forum in Davos. “As more and more people engage in native, it’s more difficult to stand out,” said Trevor Fellows, global head of ad sales for Journal parent Dow Jones. “We all see that context and timing drives consumption. When we saw the Target data breaches, that would have been a great time for data security companies to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We all know it’s going to happen again.”

Forbes already gives its native ad clients a lot of leeway in publishing to the site, via its BrandVoice platform. The business publisher schools its native ad clients to post at least eight times a month to establish a presence with readers and alerts its clients each week to news events that might be relevant to them.

For those that can deliver, the rewards can be good: Among six news-driven posts this year, the number of views ranged from 2,000 to 15,000 each, while the average BrandVoice post gets between 5,000 and 6,000, said Mark Howard of Forbes. When Microsoft announced its HoloLens virtual reality product, SAP wrote this post about its implications for the workplace, getting 13,673 views. NetApp turned Super Bowl XLIX into a post on leadership lessons, which got 6,426 views. “Anytime something is timely and top of mind and you can draw a correlation to people’s lives, whether it’s their business or investments, that social awareness of what’s going on in the world is a strong play,” Forbes’ Howard said.