Fun fact: there are currently over 8.98 billion mobile connections worldwide, surpassing the total number of people in the world by more than a billion. Mobile devices have become the fastest growing man-made technology phenomenon since their inception in 1973, and they don’t just affect our everyday lives, but have fundamentally changed the way news agencies operate.
According to the 2019 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the smartphone continues to grow in importance for news with two-thirds of us (66%) now using the device to access news. Indeed, smartphones are now on par with computers in terms of news access – and this trend has prompted many news organizations to revamp their approach to monetization.
But overhauling revenue strategy in response to this massive increase in mobile users is just the start. The mobile screen is becoming a cluttered space. Notifications, social platforms, news apps and aggregators are all battling for user attention, which makes browsing news sites and hopping from one to another all the more difficult for the reader, and all the more frustrating for the publisher.
What’s more, publishers are also having to contend with a new user routine. Long gone are the days where news was consumed on a schedule, now it is usually those micro-moments (when we are on the loo, waiting for the bus, making dinner or hitting the hay) that we use our mobile devices to find something to fill the time.
Yet despite these obstacles, there is an opportunity for news publishers to reach news consumers in creative and engaging ways during these in-between moments:
Doing native advertising for mobile-first readers.
What makes native advertising a great solution for increasing revenue without compromising reader loyalty?
Back when publishers employed aggressive marketing tactics, it brought about negative repercussions. It was expensive, ROI was difficult to measure, response rates were low and, most importantly, reader trust was compromised. Even though most news organizations have turned the other cheek and are now trying to approach readers more candidly, a lot of them still struggle to get readers on board. This state of affairs necessitated a change in marketing tactics – one that would help publishers appeal to consumers without bluntly invading their online space.
One of the most effective publishing business models is native advertising. Also known as branded or sponsored content, it is a form of paid media that subtly blends the advertiser’s product or service into a third party environment in an often educational or entertaining way. According to Business Insider, this type of advertising will make up 74% of digital spend by 2021.
With native ads, the goal is not strictly profit, but to make consumers feel like they’re being offered something that has real value to them as individuals. After all, the democratization of the Internet has altered the balance of power, which explains why thousands of brands from various industries are vehemently fighting for their attention and loyalty. Indeed, customers now expect to be wooed and feel appreciated – but if you fail to meet their expectations, they’ll have no problem turning their backs and skipping off to some other competitive brand.
Some publishers and newsrooms now have their own brand studios dedicated to producing content and cadres that can match the sensibilities and style of brands they are collaborating with. By creating engaging stories for product pitches that are cohesive with the platform’s content, it is possible to increase brand awareness, drive traffic to your website, and build your subscriber base more effectively.
Remember, as long as the content is well-considered, educational and engaging enough, your readers won’t mind. As a matter of fact, FIPP’s report shows that 80% of readers don’t have a problem with native advertising as long as it is executed seamlessly. For instance, Netflix has a history of successful native ad campaigns, including one with the Wall Street Journal to promote the original series, “Narcos.” This content provides insight into the multibillion-dollar global drug trade – something the average WSJ reader would be interested in learning about – which brought an increase in viewership of the series itself.
How do you rock mobile-first native advertising?
If you ever catch yourself sharing a sponsored post, that means native advertising is impressively produced. So how can publishers accomplish this result?
First things first, it is imperative that ads (native or not) stop hijacking our mobile screens. We are all familiar with the experience: you go about reading something interesting on your smartphone and suddenly an ad occupies your display. In some cases, you get the ad to go away only to discover that the article you were reading is gone, too. Or closing it merely reveals another nerve-wracking ad.
Just imagine trying to read the newspaper and yet someone keeps slapping it out of your hands.
If we want consumers to welcome native advertising with open arms, it is crucial that it is presented in the flow of the content readers came for. Instead of intruding on your audiences with traditional methods (and irritating them in the process), the focus must shift to creating ads they are likely to greet. Native for mobile-first readers doesn’t come in the format of a pop-over, a push-down, or a pre-roll. It is straightforward, captivating, and appears ever so subtly only as readers scroll from one article to another.
The goal is not to be mobile friendly, but mobile-first. Being mobile-friendly simply means you can access the content via mobile device, but that doesn’t suffice anymore. Mobile-first, on the other hand, means that you are contextually and esthetically matching the ad format to the feel and look of an app or site you are collaborating with. This creates a seamless user experience, one that takes full advantage of a mobile device’s unique environment. And with complex performance metrics for native ads, you can measure the success of your native campaign in-depth and re-adjust your tactics without jeopardizing the trust bond you have with your readers.
That’s all peachy keen, but how exactly can publishers take full advantage of the uniqueness of mobile devices?
Primary native mobile ads formats are:
- In-Feed Social – by increasing the audience engagement on social, you can get much more bang for your buck, as your audience will do a part of your work if they like what they see.
- In-Feed Content – a less direct form of native advertising, as the content serves to engage your audience and have them visit your site via the links you would have embedded in the post or video.
- In-Feed Commerce – they adopt the look and feel of the site (an App Store, Amazon, Etsy, or any other e-commerce site) and use browsing data to serve their target audience special, tailor-made offers.
- In-Map – although similar to the in-feed commerce ads in terms of functionality, they appear in various map apps and are dependent on geo-data.
- In-Game – a type of ads which offer a product or a service in a way that rewards the potential customer for interaction with the ad, capitalizing on quality mobile games.
- Paid Search – an advertiser can use paid search results for mobile browsers, in the same way ads show up on computers.
According to Melanie Deziel from The New York Times, publishers need to align their native advertising to three following things:
- User intent
- User experience
- Device physicality
Although it poses a challenge to align native advertising with user intent, given that targeting options are not as discreet as consumers’ motives, it is still important to anticipate and understand why people choose to visit certain pages in order to deliver content appropriately.
Let’s examine Pinterest. As most of us know, the website is teeming with recipes, clothes, and crafts that inspire ideas. But there have been reports where, for example, women were scanning boards chock-full of wedding gowns which were suddenly intercepted by a native ad offering pink running shorts. It completely misaligned with users’ original intention. Even the quality and composition of the photo stood out from the environment, making the ad feel like an invader compared to the rest of high-quality images of bridal dresses.
Point being: no matter how brilliant the native ad might be, it will most certainly have diminishing returns if it’s targeted poorly.
According to PageFair research, native is a potentially sustainable solution to interruptive ad experiences, which are the primary underlying cause of ad blocking. If advertisers want to combat ad blocking, they need to start thinking of user expectation as the new UX and consider how that translates to native formats.
Whenever we are looking for product inspiration, we are intuitively drawn to real human experiences the most. We don’t like duplication on company websites and social feeds or product shots on a white background because, frankly, they stick out like a sore thumb.
Take for instance Instagram, the holy place of visual communication. If you are a shoe retailer, what do you think will feel and look better on your Instagram Feed: posting images of shoes three or four times a day or showing shoes on the floor, paired with a purse or belt, and with feet in them?
Those who succeed with native understand that to win the game, you have to play the game. Anyone who’s ever used Instagram understands that there’s an aesthetic expectation to the platform: it’s curated, it’s attractive, it is in fact Instagram-able.
So yes, the responsibility for protecting user expectations (UX) falls with publishers and advertisers. Unless these actors take concrete steps to ensure that native formats align with user expectations, there is a real risk that native becomes as bothersome to users as banners have already proven to be.
Advertisers and publishers must find ways to put the physicality of mobile devices to good use. After all, when you deliver native content on someone’s smartphone, you are essentially placing your brand in their hand – and the mobile phone has many unique capabilities (camera, geolocation, etc.), which can be used to create some of the most engaging native ads.
The T Brand Studio from New York Times worked on an exciting project with IBM to create sponsored content for the movie Hidden Figures in the form of an app. Users who downloaded the app could go on a scavenger hunt throughout the country with the goal of discovering various landmarks that pay tribute to prominent women in fields of science, engineering, technology and math. The phone notified app users whenever they were near one of those landmarks and they could also indulge in an augmented-reality experience that provides trivia and facts while bringing statues and monuments to life.
In short, if you’re applying print – or even desktop – ad practices to the mobile-first world, you’re not only going to struggle to engage, but you’re missing a trick. Mobile has the capacity to support innovative ideas and expositions in ways that were unimaginable even five years ago.
This mobile-first readership are really quite a generous lot. Time and again when polled, they tell us that they don’t necessarily mind native ads, as long as they’re good, on-brand and interesting. While this should be true for native in any format, with mobile if you’re thinking only in two dimensions, it’s just plain lazy.
So before you start developing your native ads for mobile-first readers…
Always have these questions in mind:
- Why are users here? What is their intention?
- How are users expected to interact in a particular digital environment?
- What can users gain from using their mobile device that they cannot get from a desktop, TV, or any other piece of tech?
It may seem a lot to take into account, but if you know your audience, produce compelling copy and images, judge success in terms of engagement (not impressions or clicks) and advertise on a variety of exchanges to reach users across the web – going native may become a solid source of revenue. Be smart – go mobile.