As the banner ad loses its luster, online publishers from BuzzFeed to Quartz are turning to units that capture the look and feel of the host site's content. The purists say that truly native advertising can't be scaled without losing its bespoke (read: expensive) feel. No wonder, then, that a number of companies have claimed to be able to scale the creation or distribution of native ads. There are trade-offs, though. The more automated the process, the less the advertiser can control where his ad shows up, whether it's viewable, if it fits in with the site—that is, assuming it even shows up at all. Here's how six companies claim to solve this seeming contradiction.
Started as a way to distribute video through social media, Sharethrough has moved into native advertising with technology that breaks down an ad to make it fit the look and feel of the page. To further customize the ad, Sharethrough churns out multiple versions of the creative and has the ability to update the headlines and images in real time. A mobile product was introduced this year. Sharethrough scales ads by distributing them through the “thousands” of sites in its network, including Forbes and USA Today Sports Media, and while marketers can block sites they don’t want to appear on, they can’t guarantee their ads will appear on specific ones. Advertisers also can’t retarget visitors who click on an ad. There’s a downside for the publisher as well: When the advertiser creates content with a third party, clicking on a link takes the visitor away from the site they’re on.
At its heart an engineering company, the startup claims to be truly “native” because it optimizes ads in real time, across devices, in the content stream, and unlike other native ad platforms, readers stay on the publisher’s site after they click an ad. “Our goal is, if I didn’t tell you it was native, it would look just like a publisher deployed a sponsored ad through their content management system,” CEO, co-founder Justin Choi said. Nativo’s network includes Wall St. Cheat Sheet, Entrepreneur and Reader’s Digest. Nativo tries to maintain a premium feel for its product by only working with brand advertisers, so while click rates range from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent, those who do click spend an average of 70 to 90 seconds per piece of content, per the company.
Started in 2007 as a provider of Web publishing services, it’s shifted gears to help publishers streamline the creation (and reduce the cost) of producing native ads. Polar’s point of difference is that it doesn’t do any sales or distribution. So it doesn’t compete with publishers’ own sales teams, leaving it to focus on its product, MediaVoice, which adapts ads to match the look and feel of a website. With publisher clients including The Washington Post, Torstar and Source Media, Polar recently partnered with Native Lift to get broader distribution for ad campaigns through social networks.
The startup takes marketers’ own posts or favorable editorial reviews and pours them into ads that the marketers can run on publishers’ sites. One advantage OneSpot has over others is that it buys ads through exchanges, which means it can guarantee marketers that their ads will appear on a given site (although it can’t guarantee where the ad will appear on the site). It can, however, retarget visitors who click on a given ad, permitting marketers to serve multiple ads to the same person.
Here, the scale comes in the form of the content creation. Livefyre combs through social feeds for advertisers and pulls out relevant material, then dumps it in an ad or microsite. The process of weeding out any negative or offensive social content is automated; advertisers wanting the extra security of a human touch can pay more, though. Livefyre also can scale the distribution for advertisers by running their ads in a social media aggregation widget that’s carried by 550-plus online publishers, including AOL, Bravo and Condé Nast. Advertisers can pick the individual sites they want their ad to appear on, with the publishers’ consent.
One of the best known content discovery engines, Outbrain distributes advertiser content around the Web at scale: its widget is carried by 100,000 sites including 700 premium publishers like Time and Slate, which gives it a lot of data on content usage. Advertisers can’t control which individual sites they appear on or retarget viewers, though, and can’t be too picky about the company it keeps. An advertiser’s content might show up next to articles that are cheesy or sensational (like a slideshow of scantily clad housewives in their negligee that was recently suggested to Slate readers). “We’re not trying to play God of the Internet,” said Lisa LaCour, vp of global marketing. Outbrain has tightened its editorial guidelines after discovering a lot of its advertisers were serving spam through its platform; it now eliminates 50 percent of marketers’ content.