Hearst Magazines is the latest publisher to join the native ad gold rush, with new products that will let advertisers run their messages into editorial real estate and, if desired, incorporate edit-produced content.
The five new units, now being rolled out to the market, are designed to let advertisers take advantage of the growth of mobile devices as well as social media and video.
Grant Whitmore, vp of digital, said the company had been watching the success of digital-only publishers [read: BuzzFeed, Gawker] that have been made native advertising the cornerstone of their business.
“A lot of those companies are doing really, really well right now,” he said. “So we wanted to understand what we needed to do to keep pace with our newest set of competitors.”
Addressing a common knock that native advertising is unscalable, the units can run across Hearst brands, among them Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire, and the content can run outside Hearst, if the client wishes.
Robin Steinberg, evp of MediaVest, said the products are an example of how Hearst isn’t acting like a traditional media company. “I give them a lot of credit for diversifying their offerings,” she said. “Everyone has to iterate, re-imagine the type of products they create and how they use technology to distribute.”
While a debate rages about how much editorial staff should be involved in the creation of native ads, with some publishers keeping editorial far away from the process, the Hearst units push the envelope in the way they involve the editorial side. Hearst execs said that the copy in its new units could come equally from editorial staff as Hearst marketing staff or the brand itself.
There don’t seem to be hard and fast rules yet about when editorial will supply the copy or how such copy will be labeled when it appears in ads. Executives said Hearst was in the process of creating guidelines governing the use of editorial content in ads.
But mockups of the units that Hearst is taking around to marketers provide a sense of the possibilities. One is a full page of Sephora beauty products that are “presented by” the beauty marketer. The products are labeled “editor’s picks.” Another ad unit aggregates short-form videos like Vines that are created by Hearst for the client or by the client itself. “When it makes sense and we can do it in an authentic manner, then we’ll [have editorial-created content],” Whitmore said.
The practice will undoubtedly raise questions among editorial purists about the appropriateness of having edit staffers create copy for ads. There's also a practicality issue, with staffs already stretched thin.
“In terms of who does the work, a lot of that has yet to be fully sorted out,” said Rosemary Ellis, editor in chief of Hearst’s Good Housekeeping, who, like other top editors, got a preview of the new ad strategy this past week. “I’m open to doing it in a smart and credible way…as long as it doesn’t undermine the integrity of the site. I think it’s a question not just of resources, but what an advertiser is asking for.”
Other big magazine publishers have been active in adopting native in search of more engaging, lucrative online ad formats. Time Inc. has been marketing Amplify, its unit that combines the advertiser message with relevant Time Inc. editorial content. Condé Nast said its corporate sales arm is working on a new mobile native ad product that it expects to announce soon.
But history has shown that coming up with new alternatives to the tired banner is hard. Two years ago, publishers, Hearst among them, were adopting big, glossy display ad formats in hopes of luring branding advertising that has eluded online publishers. That hasn’t happened in a big way, though.
Kristine Welker, chief revenue officer for Hearst Digital Media, said Hearst did “very well” with those units and that she sees the company’s new native ad units as complementing rather than displacing the giant ads, or standard banners, for that matter, because not all advertisers’ needs will call for native.
“We’re hearing marketers say, ‘I don’t want either-or,’” she said. “The user journey has never been about one thing.”