NPR’s New Ad Unit Falls Somewhere Between Banners and Native

'Center Stage' unit features oversized creative embedded in homepage

A screenshot of NPR

NPR is trying to better the banner ad.

The nonprofit news organization redesigned its homepage on Wednesday and introduced a new ad unit called Center Stage, which is a step toward native advertising while steering clear from the advertorial form that many Web publishers have started to embrace, said Bryan Moffett, vp of digital strategy and ad operations at National Public Media, a subsidiary of NPR.

"Our audience expects us to stay pretty clearly behind the commercial line of commercial sites," he said. "So we have to be very careful. I think actual sponsored content flowing into the editorial well is a place we're really not ready to go."

But Center Stage, which features oversized creative and video baked in, is clearly an improvement on a standard banner. The unit actually unfolds in the middle of the homepage as you scroll through the content, with thick gray slabs offsetting it from the editorial section. It's much closer to elegant magazine ad than punch the monkey.

Plus, NPR has stringent guidelines for the level of commercial messaging that can show up in its banner ads, meaning the organization can't participate in programmatic ad buying, Moffett said, "because there's no ability to get somebody to change the language in a banner in a programmatic buy."

That has hit the nonprofit's revenue, according to Moffett. "[Center Stage] was a way to come up with a more compelling offering" for clients and agencies, he said.

Currently, NPR is aiming for one Center Stage sponsorship a week, with each roadblock lasting for a day. The launch sponsor was Squarespace, a Web design firm. Upcoming sponsors include a tourism board and cancer research facilities, per Moffett.

The plan is for each Center Stage campaign to have a video element, and brands and agencies will always provide the creative, Moffett said, but the sales team and even some editorial staffers will review the content to ensure it's up to snuff for the NPR audience.

"We screen that content very rigorously to make sure that it's actually interesting, good content," he said. "We're not going to run TV commercials there. We're not going to run 30-second spots. And we're not going to run dry messages that are boring. We want them to be good stuff."