UBS Securities’ annual media investment conference gets underway today, and media buying agencies are lowering their ad spending forecasts. Even online advertising – that looks relatively healthy with projected double-digit growth – is facing a bit of an identity crisis. Content and media sites are struggling to accommodate the polarizing forces of programmatic ad-buying and so-called “native advertising.” While there’s no single solution to thriving in digital advertising, several social media-driven angles bear watching.
Brand-name online publishers have been uncomfortably coexisting with ad networks since the beginning of the internet, but what used to seem an efficient way of unloading remnant ad inventory now threatens premium slots sold for high CPMs. Early last month, Federated Media Publishing, itself a network of mostly tech blogs, cut back its sales force to shift emphasis to its automated display ad Lijit Network. And depending on your perspective, real-time bidding exchanges from Google, The Rubicon Project, and Facebook, are either the latest scourge driving down CPMs or, in Facebook’s case, a way to raise the value of its bargain-basement inventory. As we wrote, third-party big data audience analytics plus real-time bidding enable advertisers to buy targeted audiences across the web, without relying much on media companies.
Faced by network-driven programmatic buying, and former premium ad spots going unsold, companies like Federated, and even the New York Times, are responding via native advertising. Native advertising is the latest buzzphrase describing content marketing, sponsorships, and advertorials – marketing vehicles that blend in more naturally with content than banner ads, and that often take advantage of social media technologies.
Countering the crisis
Here’s how some companies are thriving amidst the digital advertising disruption:
- Facebook’s sponsored stories – that blend users’ Facebook activities with marketing messages – are a prime example of native advertising. But that approach is most useful to content or retail sites with large volumes of users that do a lot of posting. Facebook and Twitter aren’t renting out that technology to other publishers, but it might be an opportunity for Amazon or Best Buy. Likewise Facebook’s exchange only uses its own inventory, notwithstanding the usual talk of a web-wide Facebook ad network. Its exchange is driving investment in marketing companies like Triggit, but it doesn’t help other sites. Facebook won’t even sell ads on Zynga anymore. But content sites should pay close attention to tracking and analytics techniques Facebook is trying out. Its View Tags are new, but potentially offer better attribution analysis, something other content publishers could emulate.
- LinkedIn has been firing on all cylinders lately, but most of its revenue is tied one way or another to jobs and recruiting. In an effort to expand its advertising business, the company launched very limited access to a new Ad API. LinkedIn is positioning the API as a way for preferred partners to buy text or small image ads. The approach seems overly cautious in not letting its three designated marketing partners (Adobe, Bizo, Unified) do much creatively, although they can better track and integrate LinkedIn inventory with broader web campaigns.
- Spiceworks is another B2B advertising business that is thriving. Spiceworks offers free, SaaS network management and help desk tools to IT professionals at small and medium-sized businesses. In doing so, it has built up a pretty targetable audience of 2 million highly engaged users that participate on message boards, reviews and ratings, and self-help systems. Advertisers like Dell and Rackspace can do the native advertising thing, and Spiceworks is an effective distribution channel for white papers and product info.
- There are plenty of tactics to increase audience engagement on content and retail sites. Two that play off the data analysis theme come from Demandbase and Bloomreach. Demandbase enables site personalization based on its analysis of what company a site visitor is coming from. Companies like Cisco, Dell, and NetSuite do account-based targeting of ads and content. Bloomreach draws on web-wide analytics that drives content personalization, which, in turn, makes SEO more effective. Bloomreach’s platform is most effective for merchants with lots of products and content about them; customers include blue-chip retailers like Bluefly, Williams-Sonoma, and Nieman Marcus.
The countervailing forces of programmatic buying and native advertising will wrench online advertising back and forth for at least the next 24 months. To prosper, publishers and other content-oriented sites must emulate analytics and targeting tactics driven by sites with active user communities.