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Native Advertising; Use the Technology, Not a Network

TonyTony Vlismas is the Senior Director of Marketing at Polar, a computer software firm based in Toronto. Polar originally focused on mobile, but has rebranded to expand its mission, now specializing in native ads. Tony has worked in marketing, strategy, and sales engagement for over 15 years with companies like Ackroo, Motricty, Voltari, and Apple. Follow Tony on Twitter: @iknowtony.

It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday, and a banner campaign has to fill before the weekend is over. It’s a combination of no one wanting to work on weekends, a campaign that didn’t pace well, and a low CTR that we quickly make a decision: blast it out. Fill the inventory, get somewhere moderately close to the original targeting, optimize as much as you can over the next two hours, but just fill it.

Monday will role around. CTR will still stink, pacing will be way off – but hey, we filled! And at the end of the day, isn’t that what every client wants? Just to make sure the 10-million eyeballs they paid for saw the banner? The publishers are happy because from the highly-targeted to the obscure, we used their inventory. Consumers don’t care because their eyes are now trained to avoid the banner ads.

So why did I feel so betrayed, like I didn’t do my job? That’s how a lot of us felt (and still do) in the banner world. Networks built with the intention to be highly-targeted for everyone: the publisher fills the space with a highly-engaging, relevant ad for their reader; the brand gets their message across to the masses; and consumers get some value out of a targeted ad.

But instead they pump out inventory.

A while back our CEO at Polar, Kunal Gupta, wrote about why he didn’t want Polar to build a network of native ads. There are many valid reasons, but as someone that came from the network and aggregator world, the one key reason that sticks out for me is relevance.

Native ads are great. Publishers get top dollar for placement, marketers get their rich content shared with new prospects, and customers get great new premium reading material. Everyone is happy but only because we’re all playing our part:

The publisher sells this native ad placement from their direct sales team. They ensure it’s a good fit, that the brand works, and that the journalistic voice isn’t compromised.

The marketers and their agency are spending time and money developing great content in the hopes that the right people will see it and make it shareable.

And consumers are in on this, too: most of us click Like on anything remotely of interest to us, but we covet what we Share with our followers.

It works and when we look at the rising rates of native ads (which offsets the falling rates of programmatic ad buys), the excellent engagement results, and the increase brand spend, all signs point to success.

A network doesn’t create scale in this ad business that is extremely successful (and growing). Instead the publisher is opening up a slot on their main page, one that is reserved for news or a highly-targered native ad sold by their sales team. And it’s being filled by what a network thinks is “a reasonable fit”. Quantity over quality? That spot has now gone from commanding top-dollar to half it’s value as “fill”. The marketer has now put their content into the abyss of a network, no control over where it goes other than a few levers for targeting. And the consumer skips the ads, seeing how it’s not relevant to them or it doesn’t properly fit in the context of the content around it, or written in a different journalistic voice from the surrounding editorial. Their eyes become trained to skip native ads, they way they skip banners.

All for what? CTR? Click-through rate as a measure doesn’t measure anything at all. Today marketers spend their advertising dollars and want to understand engagement, viewership, and sharing. All things native advertising brings to the table. I make the argument that a network puts CTR at the forefront, not engagement.

Facebook, Twitter, Forbes BrandVoice, Buzzfeed, and the like will continue to sell direct. Their natives ads are relevant, get top dollar, and great engagement. And they continue to eat the publisher’s lunch.

Publishers are at a pivotal point where they can still scale their native ads business using technology, where their direct sales team can sell at the highest dollar, where inventory is valuable, where they can bring value to sponsored content which will bring new readers to their site. They can compete with the “big guys” by selling direct, not through a network.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of our past.