Last week the heads of leading publisher content marketing studios gathered in London at Digiday’s WTF event to debate the latest opportunities and challenges in native advertising.

Industry experts dealt out some harsh realities about the future of banner ads, with the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) senior industry programs manager Clare O’Brien declaring something most people know, even if they don’t care to admit it openly: banner ads don’t work. U.K. advertisers still pulled in a record £4 billion ($6 billion) on digital advertising in the first half of this year, according to the IAB’s latest digital ad spend report.

But native advertising, which has been around in various guises for some years, is coming into its own. It grew 50 percent to £325 million, accounting for a quarter of all display revenue in the U.K., according to the report.

Yet one of the biggest challenges in native advertising is justifying the return on their investment. Publishers are using metrics such as page and article dwell time, but there is nothing yet to link it to product sales.

Digiday took the chance to speak to some of them during the day and ask them what their single biggest challenge is in native advertising.

Kaylee King-Balentine, director, T Brand Studio International, New York Times
“Of course ensuring a return on investment is a challenge in the native space in general, because brands can’t quite see how buying a story can translate into buying their product,” she said. “I get that, but part of the solution is the brand-building part of it. Maybe it does translate into people buying your product but it’s also important it translates into you as a brand showing you care about your consumer, and that you’re a thought leader in the space, and that you’re relevant. Those are the challenges that keep happening over and over again..”

Laura Doward, head of strategy, Guardian Labs
“It’s demonstrating full-funnel return on investment for the content. Clients have lots of different metrics and so often don’t know what they want to achieve with native from the offset,” she said. “When you’re measuring the ROI make sure you’re measuring the right things. Don’t just think that the click through rates and amount of users you get there immediately is the most important thing — think about the whole journey.”

Wil Harris, group digital director, Condé Nast
“Getting brands to understand that native advertising is not an advertorial: They are paying for our expertise in writing content, and investing in the fact we know how to write for our audience,” said Harris, who advised brands not to “stand there and say ‘we want the logo over here, and you haven’t mentioned the product enough,’ and things like that. We know what we’re doing, we write for this audience all the time — that’s what you’re paying us for. It’s about relinquishing control. Trust us in what we’re doing.”

Tiffanie Darke, creative content director, News UK
“I think it’s persuading brands that news titles — as opposed to outdoor, radio and TV — are incredibly influential and effective in meeting brand challenges,” said Darke, who stressed that the hardest part is “just being on the radar for consideration. Once we are, and we effect the campaign, the feedback is always very positive.”

Forbes, sales director Europe, Paul Mikhailoff
“For brands the biggest challenge is in generating scale: Does the scale justify the spend?” he said. “Though once you try and put in a hard advertising metric like sales you’re moving away from the fact it’s about brand positioning, being seen to be a leader in your field, which may lead to sales later.”

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