4 Pro Tips For Publishers Building A Native Ad Strategy

Editor’s note: Dan Greenberg is the founder & CEO of Sharethrough, the native video advertising company. Dan has been honored as an AdAge “Media Maven” and was recently named to the Forbes “30 under 30″ list. You can find him on Twitter at @dgreenberg.

Entrepreneurs are rapidly rolling out bold new online media designs that are changing our perception of how content publishers and platforms should look and operate (see Medium, Branch, and Devour). Instead of sites designed solely to maximize page views, we are now seeing an influx of publishers that incorporate content streams, grids and galleries to produce a more fluid, less interruptive content discovery experience. This design evolution has also led to a new approach in monetization, where sites are now being designed from the ground up to integrate native advertising formats, rather than the traditional display ad placements.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘native advertising,’ it is defined as ad strategies that allow brands to promote their content into the endemic experience of a site in a non-interruptive, integrated way (see the native ad market breakdown here). Dominant social media and content discovery platforms including Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon and Tumblr have all chosen not to employ traditional display or interruptive ads and instead incorporate native ads to drive revenue. The next generation of publisher entrepreneurs have taken notice of this shift and are thinking hard about how they can also build advertising formats that can be as native to their sites as Promoted Tweets are to Twitter or Paid Discovery is to StumbleUpon.

The great news for publishers is that advertisers are embracing native ads in a huge way and are on the lookout for new, unique experiences. The reason they are buying native ads is because they consistently beat the paltry average engagement rates for display advertising and provide a much better user experience than interruptive ads like pop-ups and interstitials. Publishers now have a business case to re-imagine how advertising can look and feel. To help them get there, we have put together four tips for publishers to help launch an effective native ad strategy:

Plug in Open, Then Build Out Closed

In closed native advertising systems like Facebook and Twitter, brands can create and promote customized content within the platform itself; however, that content cannot exist outside of the confines of that same platform. A closed native advertising system is a great way to increase the stickiness of a publisher’s site, as brands have to create their own profiles and content within the platform, such as Facebook’s Promoted Posts. For publishers that are in their early stages, it makes sense to utilize an open native advertising model to quickly plug in brand content to native placements and use those performance insights to inform them on whether it makes sense to build out their own closed system. Open native advertising allows brands to use a single piece of brand content across multiple campaigns, which cuts down on their expenses and implementation time. Examples of open native advertising platforms include Outbrain and Disqus for recommended content widgets and Sharethrough for sponsored videos.

Use a native friendly user interface

Successful UI design for a site that is looking to offer native ad placements can take many different forms. Whether it is in a feed like Twitter, a grid like Devour, or a gallery like Etsy or Pinterest, the key is to create a layout that can integrate brand content in a visually appealing way that won’t quickly fall victim to attention deficit, as we’ve seen with “banner blindness.”  Below we have called out 3 major UI trends and have included an example of their native ad implementation strategy:

Stream/Feed (Ex. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr)
Brand content units are integrated within a content or social feed. Twitter’s Promoted Tweets are a great example of an in-feed native ad unit that drive high rates of engagement (from 1-3% on average) and work fluidly across desktop or mobile.

Gallery (Ex. Pinterest, Chill, Digg)
Branded content goes into individual gallery units that are both highly visual and offer room for a brief amount of copy. Before they’ve even rolled out the anticipated ‘Promoted Pins’ unit on Pinterest, marketers have flocked to Pinterest to promote new products and reap the rewards of their hefty referral traffic.

Grids (Ex. Devour, Etsy, Imgur)
Branded content is promoted within grid units that are primarily image-based with limited space for accompanying text. Devour’s homepage exemplifies a curated grid layout with a well-integrated native ad placement.

Build for the Brand Content Innovators

Integrating native ads into your site can be difficult if you do not partner with advertisers who are creating content that viewers actually want to see. To put a native ad strategy on a viable path, publishers need to identify the brands that are actively producing high quality branded content and targeting audience segments that their site reaches. To help kick off that search, below is a short list of major brands across the top spending verticals that are producing notable original content:

Technology – Intel
Creative agency partners: Pereira & O’Dell, Virtue WW, Believe Entertainment Group
Recent content includes a 6 episode social short film called “The Beauty Inside”, to a screenwriting contest with Roman Coppola, to a series on world-renowned DJ Tiesto.
Chief Marketing Officer – Deborah Conrad

Entertainment – ESPN
Creative agency partner: Wieden & Kennedy
Recent branded content includes an 8-minute documentary on fans who take their favorite teams to the grave.
Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing – Sean Bratches

Auto -Volvo
Creative agency partner: Forsman & Bodenfors
The auto industry has a wealth of brands that are investing heavily in branded content, such as Toyota, BMW, or Volkswagon. Check out Volvo’s recent video the “Ballerina Stunt.”
Vice President Global MarketingRichard Monturo

CPG – Old Spice
Creative agency partner: Wieden & Kennedy
Old Spice has rolled out one hit after another. From “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” to the most recent Vimeo hit, “Muscle Music”,
Brand Manager – Joshua Talge

Financial – American Express
No brand takes publishing more seriously than Amex. Check out their digital publishing platform Open Forum which aims to produce content to aid the growth of small businesses.
Chief Marketing OfficerJohn Hayes

Provide analytics to track engagement and show viral lift

Advertisers are moving beyond simple click-through-rates (CTR) and looking for new ways to measure depth of engagement and the impact of sharing. While building out an entire analytics dashboard is a tall task for a fledgling publisher, platforms like Moat can be utilized to track advanced metrics like viewable impressions, in-view time, interaction time, interaction rate, a heat-map-like hover rate, attention quality, and time to scroll. For publishers that want to create their own social analytics dashboards, check out Buzzfeed’s Viral Dashboard, which provides data on the viral lift for each of their posts.