The Guardian is looking to resolve ongoing issues around the value of branded content, propelled by its in-house agency Guardian Labs’ pledge to spend its second year finding the best way to measure native advertising performance.
“Challenging” is the word Guardian Labs managing director Anna Watkins uses to describe its first 12 months. And yet the creative hub has come so far in lifting the average value of its commercial deals within a short space of time. With the bar set high, the publisher believes it can command even bigger fees in 2015 if it can convince advertisers not to replan native ad budgets into display and TV.
The issue with native ads is proving the most effective ways to execute and measure campaigns, admitted Watkins. Publishers and advertisers are battling over whether it should be branding metrics or performance metrics at a time when there is no standardised process in place.
"When it comes to getting ambitious projects over the line there’s still a question in a lot of clients and agencies of how they stack up against traditional display or even TV. It’s why proving return on investment is going to be one of our priorities and we’ll share our knowledge with the rest of the industry," she added.
"In terms of [native advertising] being a rigorous discipline it’s still early days and some clients can get nervous when it comes to developing more integrated strategies with us."
Everything Guardian Labs does is bespoke for each advertiser and the same goes for the way it approaches proving the efficacy of native ads. Campaigns for Unilever and EE, that ran throughout 2014, used metrics tailored to them, measuring conversions and not just engagement, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. It means reporting to advertisers metrics more akin to typical brand measures like cost per acquisition, word of mouth and social influence.
“There’s no catch-all solution for us,” added Watkins. “We’re doing more bespoke qualitative analysis with our research and insights team around the campaigns because [ROI} isn’t a simple equation in our view.”
Native ads can deliver strong returns if aligned with campaign objective. The Guardian is getting better at doing this for longer deals with the likes of Unilever and EE though is keen to do it for shorter campaigns. Clicks and uniques aren’t wrong measures of success in these instances, assured Watkins, but they will not always reveal the depth of experience a reader has had with branded content.
Watkins said: “Our [campaign] ideas don’t always get picked up. More often than not we’re not losing them to compatriots. At the last minute they are being replanned into display and TV. We still have an education job to do. It's why we’re doing the research into ROI, because we want to lead the way and if we can help educate everyone then it will stand us in good stead.”
The publisher is still a way from being able to show conclusively that native ads are driving people to purchase yet is wary it needs to provide a clearer view of the ever-fragmenting conversion funnel at scale. It is why Guardian Labs plans to adapt the publisher’s editorial real-time analytics tools, using it to create live data dashboards displaying audience data from the likes of Comscore and Millward Brown.
“It’s still early days [for the tools],” said Watkins. “On the editorial side you can [use the platform to] track in real time where stories are being referred from whatever platforms they are being consumed on and how they are being shared. We’re trying to work out what our equivalent is.”
Part of this process will extend to the programmatic space. Ophan already feeds into Doubleclick and Guardian Labs sees a larger role for programmatic trading in its attempt to demonstrate clear ROI and accountability.
It is not just native ads where the Guardian is hoping to make headway in 2015. Content for Professional Networks, its B2B offering, was a surprise performer in 2014, said Watkins, when page views jumped 69 per cent and membership increased to over 600,000.
The initiatives from Guardian Labs aim to help dispel concerns from advertisers and industry observers of the shrinking chasm between editorial content and advertising. The Telegraph has been accused of muddying these lines by not running certain stories for fear of upsetting HSBC, one of its top advertisers.
The publisher later accused the Guardian of altering a story to avoid angering Apple, which the latter dismissed. As advertisers increasingly see themselves as publishers in the advent of content marketing, Guardian Labs is looking to take a leadership role in giving it a scalable role within the marketing mix.