When advertising and editorial collide
The line between advertising and editorial is blurring further behind a new buzzword: integration.
Several sessions at the Advertising Week conference in New York invoked discussions around the need for advertisers to engage more effectively with audiences online. Increasingly, this means finding new ways to commingle advertising and editorial content.
“You’re going to see more advertising moving toward content – and more acceptance of that,” said Maria Mandel, vice president of marketing and media innovation with AT&T.
It’s a new twist to an old story. Since the dawn of the Internet age, advertisers have been experimenting with ways to align more closely with publisher brands online – first through banners, then through advertorial, microsites, in-text ads, product placement and a variety of other sponsored content initiatives.
“The challenge is that over the last 10 years, the ad units, the banners, the buttons haven’t changed much,” said Mandel. “But as digital advertising becomes more complex, with video, sound and motion, advertisers can start delivering more emotional connections.”
Project Devil: A new model?
Publishers such as AOL are taking aggressive steps to help advertisers make those connections.
“There’s a place for brands to integrate with content in unique ways,” said Erin Clift, senior vice president of global sales development at AOL. “It’s important that we build to that.”
A key building block for AOL is the ominously named Project Devil, which the company launched on Monday.
“Project Devil is about reinventing the page,” said Clift (see "old" and "new" examples below). “We’re trying to maximize the page for content, but also for advertisers. We want to give them a chance to be a publisher and work more closely with the content.
“The editorial content is engaging, so why shouldn’t the ads be engaging, and functional, and offer utility?”
The trade-off for advertisers: fewer ad units, but better placement of the ones that remain, and a far better sandbox for displaying engaging content.
“Before, we were trying to overmonetize as many as 17 ads on our pages,” AOL CEO Tim Armstrong said during a Q&A session with industry analyst Jack Myers. “So we thought, what if we just ran one ad on one-third of the page? It’s the same amount of total ad space, but it gives the advertiser a much more integrated approach.
“The idea was to construct an ad unit that looks like content,” said Armstrong. “It allows advertisers to program real content on the page.”
Clift emphasized that all advertising content within the new format will continue to be clearly marked to distinguish it from editorial. “You can’t blur the line. You have to be clear about what’s editorial and what’s not,” she said. “But when you can use data to match consumer demand with what a brand is doing, that’s really compelling. We can work together with brands to create a great experience.”
Audience data plays a key role in executing this vision. One message that permeated a few Advertising Week sessions is that data is the new creative – because it enables brands and publishers to deliver relevant content to specifically targeted audience segments.
“Data gives you insight into your audience and knowledge into what you can do to foster that relationship,” said Bill Demas, president and CEO of Turn, a demand side platform developer.
“For all the data we collect, we’re still an industry that’s focused on the last click,” said Demas. “We’re looking to move beyond that and look at all the touch points – who introduced a consumer to a brand, what was the engagement level – and assign a value to it.”
Scott Knoll, general manager of Aperture, an audience targeting and measurement platform provider, said online advertisers must learn to leverage the data they’re collecting more effectively to deliver increasingly targeted messaging.
“It’s not about proxying to content anymore – that’s old school,” he said. “The future is about understanding the consumer and actually taking action by connecting it back to the ad server. Who’s the right person, at the right time, in the right mindset, to serve an engagement is a decision that will be made by an algorithm that takes in all those variables.”
“Audience in combination with context drives conversion,” said Todd Teresi, chief revenue officer at Quantcast.
Increasing user acceptance?
Teresi’s equation assumes two key factors. The first is that users will buy into the concept of advertising as content. AOL-commissioned research released this week concludes that users are, in fact, accepting of advertising that is targeted or relevant and also visually appealing.
“Consumers see ads as a form of content, especially if it’s sponsored by a major brand,” said William Ziff-Levine, managing director of Data & Management Counsel, which performed the research.
The second assumption is that advertisers can actually create compelling content that engages, entertains or informs without a hard sell. Not everyone’s a believer. Mediapost’s Joe Marchese this week continued his recent crusade against the advertising-as-content movement:
"In the end, advertising will never be true content because the goal of great content creators is to create a product that people value, while the goal of great advertising creators will always be to sell products and build brands. With advertising, the content value is a means to an end only."
Andy Wiedlin, vice president of sales at the Huffington Post, also is skeptical of advertisers’ ability to produce quality content.
“Ninety-five percent of all ads suck,” he said. “We’re open to advertisers who want to engage and be part of the content game. But it takes a great client to do that. And from what I’ve seen, we don’t have enough great clients.”
Nevertheless, Wiedlin sees the benefit in exploring deeper relationships with advertisers as a way to counter the trend toward lower CPMs being driven by ad networks and exchanges.
“Audience-based buying is a race to the bottom,” said Wiedlin. “Advertisers want to buy through ad networks, but they’re also asking us, how can we do something great?”
Wiedlin, for his part, is happy to support both camps.
“Sometimes companies want ROI – banners and buttons,” he said. “Other times they want to build a brand. Sometimes those are different groups within the same company. As long as they both have budgets, we’re OK with that.”