The Two Key Ingredients of Native Ads Done Right

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Native advertising is having its Snow Fall moment. When The New York Times published Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a multimedia feature that made simple words on a page feel suddenly old-fashioned, it was heralded as “the future of journalism storytelling.” It would go on to win a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing as “a distinguished example of feature writing giving prime consideration to quality of writing, originality and concision, using any available journalistic tool.” Now, a year and a half later, it’s clear that Snow Fall did change the landscape for old and new media. Suddenly digital tools made it possible to enhance a story and tell it in a new - and better - way.

We’re at that precise inflection point with native advertising too. Here’s why:

Netflix recently produced two impressive pieces of in collaboration with two top-tier digital properties that have gone viral and even begun to win over skeptics of the native format. The first, TV Got Better, which appeared on Wired.com, is a lighter piece looking at changing trends around how viewers consume television content. It’s perfectly tailored to the audience of the site, providing insights into exactly the type of technology trend that Wired readers love, while staying true to Netflix main interest of increasing customer sign-ups (spoiler alert: the article paints Netflix-type content as the future of TV).

The second piece, Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work, appeared on the NYTimes.com and is one of the first pieces to come out of the Times’ Brand Studio Unit. It’s an insightful and sobering piece about the unique challenges faced by women in prison and their families, and also promotes the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” which is set in a women’s prison. The Times piece reads like a real exposé on an uncomfortable topic, because it is one. The presence of the advertiser is clear, but it doesn’t get in the way. In a nutshell: It’s great content in its own right.

Both of these posts are terrific examples of high quality, engaging content that is on brand but still authentic. And they both delivered admirable results to the advertiser, with the NYTimes article breaking into the top ten articles at the time as listed by Chartbeat. What both of these pieces also illustrate (and what often gets lost in the conversation) is that creating great quality branded content isn’t easy. The cost and manpower that went into creating these posts was far in excess of what it takes either of these sites to produce a typical, non-sponsored article (over four months in the case of the NYTimes piece).

The bar maintained by readers of premium sites is high. Readers are smart. They expect great, insightful content and can sniff out a ‘sell-out’ piece within a few sentences. Good sponsored content needs to serve the needs of the audience with the added challenge of delivering the message of the advertiser, in a way that is true to both parties … a difficult line to walk.

So yes, great sponsored content needs to be high quality and authentic. But few advertisers would spend a dime creating even Pulitzer-quality content if it is only seen by a few people. Advertisers want scale for their content dollars, no different than display, mobile or video. The NYTimes.com (16.9M monthly uniques) and Wired.com (1.5M monthly uniques) obviously have reach.

Does that mean that only the NYTimes.com’s of the world will succeed in the native game? Not by a long shot.

For publishers that don’t have the reach (or the editorial firepower) of these sites, a common tactic is to offer quantity over quality … lots of cheap, snackable posts to the advertiser to up the perception of scale like top ten lists and hamfisted advertorials. Publishers and advertisers are counting on the shareability of this type of content, rolling that dice that one of their content bundle goes viral and they can hopefully benefit from their logo next to the post with all those eyeballs on it. Sometimes it works. But far more often it doesn’t.

Here at Say Media, we think there is a different and better way. We recently launched Accountable Content. Accountable Content means high-quality branded content with a strong point-of-view and the authenticity that readers demand, but with the accountability of guaranteed scale. While the buzzword is new, our editors and content partners have been producing award-winning sponsored content for several years, and now have paired that with guaranteed views. That’s our solution - we look forward to seeing others tackle the quality + scale problem too.

After years of hype and debate, these recent pieces from two media powerhouses are turning native ad skeptics into believers. They’re also making a strong argument that native ads can be a positive thing for brands and publishers - and are here to stay. And that’s good news for all of us.

Greg Williams is Senior Director of Product Management at Say Media.