Can Native Save Mobile Advertising? ‘The New York Times’ Sure Hopes So

If we know one thing about mobile behavior, it’s that the way users consume content on their devices varies based on location and time of day.

Increasingly, publishers have aimed to tailor their content to these behavioral patterns, but mobile advertising, by and large, has lagged behind.

Fittingly, one of the world’s most famous publishers wants to get mobile advertising up to speed.

This September, The New York Times is launching Mobile Moments, a new ad product for mobile that aims to increase the relevance of mobile advertising by serving users contextually tailored native advertising. Eight months ago, the Times‘s advertising department dedicated a team to working closely with editorial to create a mobile ad experience that delivered actual value to users.

A pattern was discovered: While consumers seek updates in the morning, come evening they just want to be entertained.

The company is offering seven moments for marketers to target: Prepare Me for the Day, Make Me Feel Connected, Help Me Plan, Update Me on Something I Missed, Help Me Follow a Developing Event, Understand a Planned Event, and Entertain Me. An energy company might choose to target a mobile user on his morning commute with a message about how much energy could be saved if all New York City commuters walked or biked to work that day. That night, while relaxing at home, the same user might receive an ad featuring behind-the-scenes photos and video from an event like New York Fashion Week or SXSW.

“It’s a dayparting strategy,” Sebastian Tomich, SVP of advertising and innovation at The New York Times, said of the product, “but with insight from the newsroom to provide rationale for what the brand should say.”

The unit is also a native ad—and that’s very telling. Increasingly, publishers are eschewing mobile banners for ad content that echoes editorial content to better catch the consumer’s eye. In a poll on mobile ad developments conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and research firm Ovum, 80 percent of U.S. marketers said that native mobile ads were somewhat to very important.

Mobile native ads stand to solve many of the problems that have beleaguered mobile advertising to date. Historically, microscopic creative, banner blindness, and fat-finger syndrome that inflates smartphone ad clicks have all affected brands’ ability to connect with mobile users. Rather than designing specifically for a mobile audience, many publishers continue to retrofit their desktop ads for the small screen.

“We looked at mobile ad creative, and there isn’t that much great stuff on the market,” Tomich said. “As media companies, we’re all guilty of passing down the same strategy from medium to medium.” According to the IAB, 44 percent of marketers named “limited opportunities for creativity” as one of the key mobile advertising challenges they face.

At Slate, native is front and center. “Native on mobile may be more powerful than native on desktop,” said Matt Turck, chief revenue officer of The Slate Group’s premium podcast network Panoply and interim publisher of

The company uses a three-pronged strategy for producing ads that connect with mobile users. The first piece is video. Slate’s in-house custom content studio, Slate Custom Group, creates video content for advertisers that’s optimized for smartphones as well as tablets.

Over on Panoply, which launched in February of this year and sees 70 percent of users listen to podcasts on their mobile device, in-stream ads are proving to be “a great way to brand,” according to Turck.

Video and content-integrated ads aside, Slate also pulls in technology by working with multiple tech providers to produce memorable mobile campaigns for consumers. A few weeks before the premier of Showtime series Homeland last September, Slate launched a mobile experience that used haptic technology to deliver carefully timed vibrations to mobile users as they watched a trailer from the show. When a bomb went off in the video, the user’s Android device buzzed in her hand.

“We recognize that programmatic is a smart way to buy banner ads, but in the premium space it’s more experiential, and more about creating unique ad experiences,” Turck said. “We’re bringing the best of those ideas to our partners.” Slate is also publishing native ads on its mobile app for iOS, which was recently relaunched; he notes that Slate’s app users are its most engaged mobile users of all.

Meanwhile, at the Times, Mobile Moment advertisers can choose to use existing multimedia creative or work with T Brand Studio, the Times‘s custom content arm specializing in sponsored content, to develop a series of short stories called a “Screenplay.” With the ad solution yet to go live it remains to be seen how consumers will react, but Tomich calls it “the first step in a long-term mobile advertising evolution.”

In addition to native ads, publishers are embracing longform mobile content—a development that some might find surprising. As The Atlantic reported last year, though it’s long been assumed that mobile users prefer snackable content that they can consume on the go, surveys suggest that they now watch full-length shows and movies on their phones. Perhaps the best example of this shift in behavior can be found in the now-infamous tale of BuzzFeed’s “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500,” a 6,300-word behemoth of a story that generated more than a million views, 47 percent of them on mobile. Readers spent 25 minutes immersed in the story on their phones, compared with 12 minutes on their tablets.

Turck agrees that the value of longform content is on the up. “Slate readers want more than just soundbites,” he said. “A few years ago I would have said that mobile is about shortform content, but we’ve learned, and the market has learned, that mobile users are consuming longform and even multiple-page stories.”

“Very simply,” Tomich added, “We are solving for bigger, better creative and redefining what it means to be relevant in mobile.”

No doubt advertisers are happy to hear it.

Image by Sergey Nivens
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