Native advertising’s attention-deficit problem

Native ads are shaping up as the equivalent of trees falling in the forest: If no one views sponsor-generated content, does it make a sound?

Chartbeat, a data analytics company, has found that just one-third of readers who click on a native ad engage with the content for more than 15 seconds, and only 24% scroll down the page. By comparison, two-thirds of readers who access editorial content stay on the page past the 15-second mark, and 71% scroll for more.

“What this suggests is that brands are paying for — and publishers are driving traffic to — content that does not capture the attention of its visitors or achieve the goals of its creators,” Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote in a post on Time.com. “Simply put, native advertising has an attention deficit disorder.”

The Chartbeat data speaks to a challenge that goes beyond how native ad content is labeled. If visitors are clicking but not reading, that’s a quality problem. Either the content is poorly written or uninteresting, or it does not match the quality of the editorial around it. In either case, it’s not meeting a reader’s expectations, which reflects badly on both the advertiser and the publisher. Quality, more than any other factor, will determine the fate of native advertising.

Quality brand content, you say? Seems like a void that publishers should be able to fill. Mega-publishers such as Hearst and The New York Times have launched their own creative studios to help brands develop more compelling content, joining native ad pioneers such as BuzzFeed and Gawker. The Wall Street Journal joined the party this week, announcing a new division, WSJ Custom Studios, to help brands create custom content. A series of “sponsor-generated” articles for tech vendor Brocade launched on WSJ.com on Monday.

“The most trusted news source in the world is now creating best-in-class content marketing solutions across all platforms, globally,” the WSJ proclaims on the Custom Studios home page.

Trevor Fellows, the WSJ’s global head of ad sales, told Digiday that the company plans to be selective with its native ad partners, likely working with no more than 10 or 11 this year, to ensure the quality remains high.

“Sponsored content shouldn’t be commonplace. It shouldn’t be second rate,” Fellows said. “It needs to be high quality, not dull or predictable. And it shouldn’t be a pale imitation of editorial content that may be done better somewhere else. If done well, it’s more about giving insights than information. That’s what bonds reader and brand together.”

The WSJ is also doing some A/B headline testing with the Brocade campaign to refine the content. Posts on big data, software-defined networking and data centers each appear twice under different headlines.

Discussions about the quality of sponsor content inevitably leads to questions about what role, if any, a publisher’s editorial staff should play in native ad programs. The WSJ clearly states that its news team plays no role in the creation of brand content. Publishers such as Forbes are hiring “brand editors” – experienced journalists that report to sales or marketing and work directly on brand content.

Hearst sees its magazine editors filling a role as a type of content consultant. Todd Haskell, SVP and chief revenue officer for Hearst Magazines Digital Media, told eMarketer that Hearst’s marketing team and creative services studio will “engage with the editorial team to shape [native ad] experiences and help us think about the content. The editors can then tell us if it’s presented and thought through in a way that will engage and delight our reader.”

Haskell noted that magazine editors won’t be involved directly in creating or producing the content, “but we do actively tap into their insight and experience in terms of creating this content and how we should present it.”

“The most important thing is for a brand to be willing to engage with the publisher to understand what type of content is going to be the most valuable to the reader,” Haskell added.

Chartbeat’s Haile summarized the quality challenge more succinctly in his Time post: “Driving traffic to content that no one is reading is a waste of time and money.”

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