Why native advertising never lived up to its promise

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Why native advertising never lived up to its promise

Back in 2018, I wrote an article about why native advertising isn’t scalable enough to save the news industry. The piece focused on the harsh realities many publishers faced when they launched “branded content studios” aimed at creating customized native advertising on behalf of brands.

While these native ad products allowed publishers to create differentiated content that brands found highly valuable, those products were difficult to scale, which limited the amount they could ultimately contribute to a publisher’s bottom line.

My piece addressed the scalability aspect. Josh Sternberg published an article this week that tackled the lack of quality that’s found within the branded content space. Why do publishers struggle on this front? Sternberg explains:

The people typically running the show are marketers and salespeople who have a different incentive, if not perspective, of the efficacy of content … If the idea of sponsored content was to be “editorial but for advertisers” the reality was it morphed into the stories about the brand.

What does this mean in practice? That publishers can talk up the lofty editorial ambitions of branded content, but at the end of the day, those who call all the shots are still marketers and sales staff. Even if you end up hiring a stellar journalist to write the content, that person often answers to people who don’t have much interest in journalism.

I’ve actually done quite a bit of freelance writing for content studios in the past, and I can attest that the work I created was less than stellar. For one, I often had very little creative input, since the piece was sold prior to my hiring. If I was lucky, I got to participate in the client onboarding call, but very little brainstorming occurred on those calls.

What’s worse, there are too many stakeholders. There’s me, the writer. Then there’s the branded content team at the publisher. Most of the people on this team have job titles like “producer” or “account executive.” Then there’s the advertising agency that works on behalf of the brand. Finally, there’s the brand itself.

With that many cooks in the kitchen, you can bet that a piece of editorial will get watered down. Oftentimes, the brand studio and advertising agency would make a round of edits before they’d actually show the piece to the end client. I can think of at least two instances where the advertising agency requested an edit I didn’t agree with, and after I made the edit, the end client would then get hold of the piece and ask us to change the article back to my original framing. 

And as Sternberg points out in his article, this content doesn’t always perform well on the publisher’s website. 

Editorial operations pump out hundreds of pieces of content per day. And not every one hits. So say you’re a media company and of the 100 stories you publish, 15 of them get tons of traffic. That’s a great rate for editorial. For advertisers who buy content programs, it’s a disaster.

These programs are often sold based on publisher metrics (pageviews, time on site, social shares, etc) as opposed to traditional advertising metrics (brand lift, awareness or sales), so there’s a disconnect in measuring efficacy.

So if you’re trying to establish a content strategy with the understanding that your sponsored content, which is already seen by the publication’s reader as “less than” editorial content, will mimic editorial content, you’re at a disadvantage.

Anyway, that’s why you rarely hear publishers talking up their branded content studios anymore. 

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Why Wondery’s new podcast app is more interesting than it seems

Wondery, a podcast network with dozens of popular shows, launched its own podcast listening app. Users will be able to listen to all the free shows Wondery already distributes on mainstream podcast players, but for $4.99 per month they’ll gain access to ad-free versions of shows, as well as exclusive episodes.

At first glance, this move might not seem that interesting. After all, how many media companies have launched their own standalone apps over the past decade? But I think this effort bears watching.

For one, Wondery went a different route than just about every podcast app on the market. Most either simply distribute free podcasts via RSS feed (Apple, Overcast) or try to offer a paid layer on top of every free podcast feed (Luminary, Spotify, Stitcher). Wondery dispensed with the notion that a podcast app should make available every podcast in existence.

You could argue that this will hurt its adoption, since users might not want toggle between multiple apps just to listen to their podcasts. But it also frees Wondery from getting bogged down in the distribution rights issues that apps like Luminary and Spotify have faced. Luminary, you’ll remember, annoyed a number of podcasters who ended up pulling their podcasts from its catalog. Even Spotify has gaping holes in its podcast library. This American Life only recently joined Spotify, and Joe Rogan was a holdout until Spotify was forced to plop down $100 million to pull him in. Wondery can avoid all these headaches and just focus on improving its core offering.

What’s more, its free shows will continue playing on virtually every free app, so its audience growth will remain unhindered. I could envision a scenario in which it devotes any unsold ad inventory to promoting its standalone app, much in the way that Spotify-owned podcasts often encourage listeners to migrate their podcast listening to Spotify. I could also see it windowing its free shows on the Wondery app for some period of time before releasing the episodes to the wider app ecosystem. 

I think the biggest reason Wondery launched this app is because it’s the only way to create a good user experience for paying subscribers. Currently, if a podcaster wants to launch a paid subscription, they have to distribute paid episodes via a customized RSS feed they provide to every subscriber. However, there are several problems with this. The first is that migrating that RSS feed to a free podcast player is clunky. Second, it creates a bad user experience, since the paid episodes won’t show up in the main podcast feed where free episodes are distributed. Third, not every podcast player even allows for customized RSS feeds, with Spotify being a noted holdout.

With its own app, Wondery can offer a much more seamless experience. Not only can it easily layer paid episodes alongside free ones, but it will have complete control over its user data and can gain more granular insights into how subscribers convert to and listen to paid content. It can collect user email addresses and then market to those users on other platforms. 

Of course we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Wondery has a huge uphill battle ahead of it. Driving adoption to a new app is hard, especially when a lot of your content is available for free on mainstream apps. But there’s a lot of potential upside if Wondery succeeds, and I think the bet is a good one.

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Other news

Bloomberg Media apparently has "2,700 reporters, editors, and analysts working in 120 bureaus around the world." [link]

Looks like Conde Nast has built up an impressive lineup of podcast and video series. Whether it's effectively monetizing them is another question. [link]

This is impressive if Barstool is truly getting 950k daily views of a guy sitting at his computer trading stocks. My frustration with the article is that it doesn't detail where those views are coming from. Some are on Twitter, but definitely not all of them. [link]

So this is written from the point of view of a professional designer, but I think it applies to any creative freelancer who's thinking of selling the services on platforms like Fiverr. [link]

Some interesting insights here on how Morning Brew grew from an evening side hustle to a serious media operation. [link]

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Public domain image from Pxhere