brand content

What’s the Fuss About Native Ads?

 

In the search for new advertising models, Native Ads are booming. The ensuing Web vs. Native controversy is a festival of fake naïveté and misplaced indignation. 

Native Advertising is the politically correct term for Advertorial, period. Or rather, it’s an upgrade, the digital version of an old practice dating back to the era of typewriters and lead printing presses. Everyone who’s been in the publishing business long enough has in mind the tug-of-war with the sales department who always wants its ads to to appear next to an editorial content that will provide good “context”. This makes the whole “new” debate about Native Ads quite amusing. The magazine sector (more than newspapers), always referred to “clean” and “tainted” sections. (The latter kept expanding over the years). In consumer and lifestyle sections, editorial content produced by the newsroom is often tailored to fit surrounding ads (or to flatter a brand that will buy legit placements).

The digital era pushes the trend several steps further. Today, legacy media brands such as Forbes, Atlantic Media, or the Washington Post have joined the Native Ads bandwagon. Forbes even became the poster child for that business, thanks to the completely assumed approach carried out by its chief product officer Lewis DVorkin (see his insightful blog and also this panel at the recent Paid Content Live conference.) Advertising is not the only way DVorkin has revamped Forbes. Last week, Les Echos (the business daily that’s part of the media group I work for) ran an interesting piece about it titled “The Old Press in a Startup mode” (La vielle presse en mode start-up). It details the decisive — and successful — moves by the century-old media house: a downsized newsroom, external contributors (by the thousand, and mostly unpaid) who produce a huge stream of 400 to 500 pieces a day. “In some cases”, wrote Lucie Robequain, Les Echos’s New York correspondent, “the boundary between journalism and advertorial can be thin…” To which Lewis DVorkin retorts: “Frankly, do you think a newspaper that conveys corporate voices is more noble? At Forbes, at least, we are transparent: We know which company the contributor works for and we expose potentials conflicts of interests in the first graph…” Maybe. But screening a thousand contributors sounds a bit challenging to me… And Forbes evidently exposed itself as part of the “sold” blogosphere. Les Echos’ piece also quotes Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab who finds the bulk of Forbes production to be, on average, not as good as it was earlier, but concedes the top 10% is actually better…

As for Native Advertising, two years ago, Forbes industrialized the concept by creating BrandVoice. Here is the official definition:

Forbes BrandVoice allows marketers to connect directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content – and participate in the conversation – on the Forbes digital publishing platform. Each BrandVoice is written, edited and produced by the marketer.

Practically, Forbes lets marketers use the site’s Content Management System (CMS) to create their content at will. The commercial deal — from what we can learn — involves volumes and placements that cause the rate to vary between $50,000 to $100,000 per month. The package can also include traditional banners that will send traffic back to the BrandVoice page.

At any given moment, there are about 16 brands running on Forbes’ “Voices”. This revenue stream was a significant contributor to the publisher’s financial performances. According to AdWeek (emphasis mine):

The company achieved its best financial performance in five years in 2012, according to a memo released this morning by Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. Digital ad revenue, which increased 19 percent year over year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue for the year, said Perlis. Ten percent of total revenue came from advertisers who incorporated BrandVoice into their buys, and by the end of this year, that share is estimated to rise to 25 percent.

Things seemed pretty positive across other areas of Forbes’ business as well. Newsstand sales and ad pages were up 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, amid industry-wide drops in both areas. The relatively new tablet app recently broke 200,000 downloads.

A closer look gives a slightly bleaker picture: According to latest data from the Magazine Publishers Association, between Q1 2013 and Q1 2012, Forbes Magazine (the print version only) lost 16% in ads revenues ($50m to $42m). By comparison, Fast Company scored +25%, Fortune +7%, but The Economist -27% and Bloomberg Business Week -30%. The titles compiled by the MPA are stable (+0.5%).

I almost never click on banners (except to see if they work as expected on the sites and apps I’m in charge of). Most of the time their design sucks, terribly so, and the underlying content is usually below grade. However, if the subject appeals to me, I will click on Native Ads or brand contents. I’ll read it like another story, knowing full well it’s a promotional material. The big difference between a crude ad and a content-based one is the storytelling dimension. Fact is: Every company has great stories to tell about its products, strategy or vision. And I don’t see why they shouldn’t be told  resorting to the same storytelling tools news media use. As long as it’s done properly, with a label explaining the contents’ origin, I don’t see the problem (for more on this question, read a previous Monday Note: The Insidious Power of Brand Content.) In my view, Forbes does blur the line a bit too much, but Atlantic’s business site Quartz is doing fine in that regard. With the required precautions, I’m certain Native Ads, or branded contents are a potent way to go, especially when considering the alarming state of other forms of digital ads. Click-through rates are much better (2%-5% vs. a fraction of a percentage for a dumb banner) and the connection to social medias works reasonably well.

For news media companies obsessed with their journalistic integrity (some still do…), the development of such new formats makes things more  complicated when it comes to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Ultimately, the editor should call the shots. Which brings us to the governance of media companies. For digital media, the pervasive advertising pressure is likely keep growing. Today, most rely on a Chief Revenue Officer to decide what’s best for the bottom line such as balancing circulation and advertising, arbitraging between a large audience/low yield or smaller audience/higher yield, for instance. But, in the end, only the editor must be held accountable for the contents’ quality and the credibility — which contribute to the commercial worthiness of the media. Especially in the digital field, editors should be shielded from the business pressure. Editors should be selected by CEOs and appointed by boards or better, boards of trustees. Independence will become increasingly scarce.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Insidious Power of Brand Content

Dassault Systemes is one of the French industry’s greatest successes. Everyday, unbeknownst to most of us, we use products designed using DS software: cars, gadgets, buildings and even clothes. This €2bn company provides all the necessary tools for what has become known as Product Lifecycle Management: starting from the initial design, moving to the software that runs the manufacturing process, then to distribution logistics and, at the end of its life, disposing of the product.

Hence a simple question: What could be the axis of communication for such a company? The performance of its latest release of CAD software? Its simulation capabilities?

No. Dassault Systemes opted to communicate on an science-fiction iceberg-related project. The pitch: a French engineer — the old-fashion type, a dreamer who barely speaks English — envisions capturing an iceberg from a Greenland glacier and tugging it down to the thirsty Canary Islands. The DS mission (should it choose to really accept it): devise all the relevant techniques for the job, minimize melting, maximize fuel-efficiency. The result is a remarkable and quite entertaining documentary, a 56 minutes high-tech festival of solutions for this daunting task’s numerous challenges. I watched it in HD on my iPad, in exchange for my email address (the one I’m dedicating to marketers). It’s a huge, multimillion video production, with scores of the helicopters shots, superb views of Greenland and, of course, spectacular 3D imaging, the core DS business. The budget is so high and the project so ambitious, that the documentary was co-produced by several large European TV channels such as France Televisions and the German ZDF. Quite frankly, it fits the standard of public TV — for such a genre.

But this is neither journalism nor National Geographic film-making. It’s a Brand Content operation.

In advertising, Brand Content is the new black. You can’t bump into an ad exec without hearing about it. It’s the new grail, the replacement for the other formats that failed and the latest hope for an ailing industry. But there are side effects.

Let’s have a closer look.

1/ What defines Brand Content as opposed to traditional advertising?

In a good BC product, the brand can be almost absent. It’s the content that’s front and center. In France, advertisers often quote a series made by the French Bank BNP-Paribas titled “Mes Colocs” (My roommates). The title says it all. Launched two years ago, it featured 20 shorts episodes, later supplemented by… 30 bonus ones, all broadcast on YouTube and DailyMotion. Mes Colocs became such a success that two cable TV channels picked it up. The brand name does not appear — except in the opening credits. But, far from being a philanthropic operation, its performance was carefully monitored. BNP-Paribas’ goal was obvious: raising its awareness among young people. And it seems to have worked: the operation translated into a 1.6% increase in accounts opening and a rise of 6.5% in the number of loans granted to young adults (details in this promotional parody produced by the agency.)

This dissociation between brand and content is essential. An historical French brand has been rightly celebrated for being the first to do brand content decades before the term was coined: Michelin with its eponymous guides provided a genuine service without promoting its tires (read Jean-Louis’ Monday Note Why Apple Should Follow Michelin.)

The following opposition can be drawn between traditional advertising and content-based message :

2 / Why the hype ?

First of all, medias are increasingly fragmented. Advertisers and marketers have a hard time targeting the right audience. BC is a good way to let the audience build itself — for instance through virality. It is much more subtle than relying on the heavily (and easily) corrupted blogosphere.

Second, most digital formats are faltering. Display advertising is spiraling down due to well-known factors: unlimited inventories, poor creativity, excessive discounts, bulk purchasing, cannibalization by value killing ad networks, etc. Behavioral targeting is technically spectacular but people get irritated by invasive tracking techniques (see my previous take: Pro (Advertising) Choice.)

Three, marketers have matured. The caricatural advertorial grossly extolling a product is long gone.  Today’s contents are much smarter, they provide information (real or a respectable imitation), and good entertainment. Everything is increasingly well-crafted. Why? Because — and that is reason #4 for growth in BC — there is a lot of available talent out there. As news media shrink, advertising agencies find an abundance of writers, producers, film-makers all eager to work for much more money they could hope to get in their former jobs. Coming in with a fresh mindset, not (yet) brain-washed by marketing, they will do their job professionally, accepting “minor” constraints in exchange for great working conditions — no penny pinching when you do a web series for a global brand.

Five, compared to traditional advertising messages, Brand Content is cheap. As an example, see the making of a recent and highly conceptual Air France commercial shot in Morocco; the cost ran into seven figures. Now, imagine how many brand content products can be done with the same investment. Brand content allows an advertiser to place multiple bets at the same time.

3/ The risks. (Here comes the newsman’s point of view)

Brand content is the advertiser’s dream come true. The downfall of the print press has opened floodgates: publishers become less and less scrupulous in their blurring of the line between editorial and promotion — which is precisely what ad agencies always shoot for. Most women magazines, the luxury press, and now mainstream glossies allocate between 30% and 70% to such “tainted” editorial: nice “journalistic” treatment in exchange for favors on the advertising side. I’m not blaming publishers who do their best to save their business, I’m just stating the facts.

The consequence is obvious: readers are not informed as they should about products. Less and less so. (Although islands of integrity like Consumer Reports remain.) That is not good for the print media as it feeds the public’s distrust. While many publications lose what’s left of their credibility by being too cosy with their advertisers, brands are becoming increasingly savvy at producing quality contents that mimic traditional editorial. As brands tend to become full blown medias, the public will get confused. Sooner or later, it will be difficult to distinguish between a genuine, editorially-driven prime-time TV show and another one sponsored by an advertiser. Call it the ever shrinking journalism.

—frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com