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Anyone involved in digital marketing will be acutely aware of native advertising’s meteoric ascendance over the past year or so.
According to Hexagram’s 2013 research, 62% of publishers are currently offering native advertising opportunities, followed by 41% of brands and 34% of agencies.
Furthermore, 66% of brands say they create their own content for native ads and the most popular forms of native advertising are blog posts, accounting for 65%, with articles at 63% and Facebook at 56%.
Native advertising presents a hugely exciting opportunity for brands to access new (and qualified) audiences that - through continual exposure to brand content - are increasingly likely to ‘convert’.
Furthermore, it is hoped native advertising will become digital advertising’s great saviour - particularly as the efficacy of online banner ads occupying similar spaces continues to diminish.
That said as the collective euphoria around native advertising grows, so too will the demands from brand CMOs that it be measurable, sustainable and profitable.
To that effect, all of us involved in the content marketing/native advertising space (whether you’re a technology-provider, as well, or a publisher or a content creator), would do well to start tackling these uncomfortable truths about our industry head-on:
1. No-one really knows how to measure the efficacy of native advertising
If you attend the raft of conferences in the marketing and media industries, you’ll appreciate that native advertising’s biggest issue isn’t the ethics or best practices, but measurement (or lack thereof).
Across the industry, experts are still struggling to standardise what to measure and how to measure it. Editors, advertisers and marketers, continue to battle over whether it should be editorial metrics, web metrics or social metrics.
And whilst this might make for fun and games for the marketing blogosphere, the lack of standardisation around measuring native advertising continues to work against conscientious and revenue-focussed CMOs who have to account for every pound spent (and, ideally, generated) ‘doing native’.
2. Those that are prepared to measure, only measure ‘engagement’
I’ll admit, no.1 was a little bit unfair.
In truth, there are many proponents of native advertising who are very happy to talk “metrics of success”. However, these metrics are almost entirely engagement-focussed.
Native performance indicators such as dwell rates, visits, shares, retweets, linkbacks, scroll depth are all lovely but they must be tied to actual user behavior as it relates to the brand.
Engagement metrics need to be linked closely to business metrics (i.e. more conclusive actions that can be ultimately tied to a conversion or retention decision).
For example, did dwelling, scrolling, or clicking through actually result in that user entering the brand’s sales funnel? Did an article in Forbes BrandVoice ultimately lead to a white paper download? Has this Buzzfeed “12 unique statues around the world” post increased requests for a test-drive for Mini? (Please answer in the comments below if you know!)
In short, for native advertising to move forward, metrics of success needs to be measured by conversions not engagement.
3. Publishers control the conversion funnel
It’s no surprise that brands find themselves stuck at points one or two, when so much of the conversation around native advertising considers the publisher’s needs and not brands’ commercial aims.
In most examples of native advertising, brands have limited explicit messaging beyond a discretely-positioned logo. As such, the unique voice of the brand - the voice that communicates the value proposition that ultimately helps drive the consumer into the conversion path - is lost.
Without this bridge from the publisher’s site content to something actionable, the consumer may never make it to the sales funnel.
Outside of awareness, native advertising must lead consumers to an brand’s owned property at some point.
All too often, the brand relies on whatever metrics the publisher is prepared to relinquish - which are typically quite limited in terms of actionable insights - and more often are meant to show performance on a particular publisher or technology as opposed to the brand’s internal (read: commercial) goals.
4. ROI is seen as a dirty word by native advertisers
Shhhh. If you can’t measure your native advertising’s effect on the bottom line, then it’s probably too soon to have grown-up conversations about ROI.
You just keep that brand marketing budget coming our way and don’t worry about a thing…
5. Native advertising goes against the ‘brands as publisher’ ethos
The promise of the content marketing revolution was that brands could ‘become publishers’. One benefit of this was that they could now have a direct relationship with their ideal audience, rather than having to go through established media intermediaries.
With the advent of content analytics, brands that advertise on intermediaries rather than building a direct audience aren’t just missing out on the direct responses from owned content, but also depriving themselves of another layer of value: insight into their own customer’s content consumption habits.
There is a goldmine of reader data that tracking content engagement produces - such as their audience’s topics of interest.
The first step towards fixing native advertising
Undergirding all of the ‘uncomfortable truths’ above is the key issue that native advertising is a standalone activity on a third party site which cannot be tied easily to bottom-line metrics.
Perhaps the most simple start for any brand is to make sure from the outset that any native content that is published links back to the brand’s own site in some way.
As soon as brands have an inbound link and are able to identify the source, they can use marketing automation to track prospects progress through qualification and towards a sale, or content intelligence tools to build unique interest profiles about each prospect.
Ultimately, brands will want to track reader activity from the native content all the way to conversion.
However, just being able to identify how much traffic a piece of native advertising is driving to an owned property is a helpful start to evaluating whether native advertising is delivering value and a positive return on investment - instead of only knowing the amount of engagement with a piece of native content on the publisher’s site (see points 2 & 3), brands can now factor in how that engagement affected conversion in a joined-up inbound marketing strategy.
Native advertising is a great way to evolve advertising, and get the benefit of an intermediary’s brand and audience relationships (distribution).
But let’s make sure we keep focused on the measurement and ROI, so it becomes more credible and scalable within the marketing mix.