How To Buy Stories (Hint: Not Like Ads)

One of the risks of shoving branded content under the broad umbrella of “native advertising” has long been that branded content would be thought of just that—ads, not high-quality journalism funded by brands. When branded content is thought of as the latter, it’s at its best. When thought of as the former, it’s at its self-promotional worst. And thanks to the race to bring programmatic-buying capabilities to sponsored content, it appears that the “branded content as ads” mindset is picking up steam.

Last week, AdAge reported on some new “pretty smart” solutions to “transform the world of sponsored content into a more programmatic buying experience.” These solutions are all trying to do pretty much the same thing: create standard IAB ad units for branded content to live in, so that it can be bought and sold and retargeted at scale on ad exchanges.

This, according to AdAge, solves two problems: first, to automate the buying process and aid in targeting and measurement, and “[s]econd, it is walling off the sponsored content into ad units rather than running them in stream. This keeps the church-state wall between advertising and editorial intact.”

It’s the “walling off” part that’s worrisome. Brand-sponsored content works best when it appears alongside regular editorial content — “in-stream,” so to speak — it forces brands and publishers to work together to create a high-value experience that the publisher’s audience will love and where authenticity is top-of-mind. If publishers are just selling ad space, they’ll hardly care about the quality of the product, and this dynamic will dissolve. In all likelihood, a lot of self-promotional drivel will start to fill those ad spaces.

In addition, pretty much the only people who click on banner ads do so accidentally. It’s easy to see how this will deliver a boost for ad exchanges and media buyers, but it’s hard to see how imprisoning branded content in ad units will help publishers and brands engage with their users.

The desire to bring programmatic retargeting to branded content makes sense, but publisher sites may not be the place to do it. Instead, marketers could look to social media solutions; FBX’s new Page Post Ads now allow brands to retarget users with relevant content right in their Facebook streams, and it’s likely that Twitter and other networks will soon follow suit.

The publishing and marketing world has built a great thing over these past years. Let’s not go ahead and mess it up.

Image by Sergey Nivens

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