No one wants to stake their advertising hopes solely on traditional ad buys anymore. But to shift real spending to brand integrations like product placements, sponsored YouTube videos or sponsored events, advertisers need standardizations and efficiencies that just don't exist yet.
Sitting down with in-house brand marketers, PR agencies, creative agencies and media buyers, we hear two consistent statements, again and again:
Yes, we want to get more new and interesting brand placements.
No, we can't scale them yet, and that is what's holding us back.
Interestingly, we've found that the issue is not whether brand integration is the right choice-- different media and placement types afford a huge range of options advertisers are curious to explore. So, even though the specific objectives of in-house marketers and their bevy of agencies can vary significantly, there's usually a brand integration option that fits the bill as part of their marketing mix.
For example, while a PR agency may focus only on earned media placements like unpaid product reviews on blogs, a media buying agency might look to secure paid sponsored posts on blogs. In both cases, a similar intent is there, but the questions remain: Which blogs are right for their audience? What kind of deals do those blogs want to do? How much should those placements cost? Will I get the exposure I paid for?
Answering these questions takes a lot of work. And the challenges multiply when you consider more media channels.
"We want more of that."
When the folks at Lyft, the car-sharing service, scored a huge brand integration with Conan O'Brien on TBS, the segment earned more exposure for their brand than anything they had done before. The YouTube video is currently at 14.6 million views and counting, on a show that nets about 862,000 viewers per episode. They knew they wanted to do more of those kinds of integrations, but they had no idea how. In fact, Conan's team had contacted Lyft in the first place, so the placement wasn't strategic at all-- it was luck.
No one wants to pin their marketing success on luck, but when you want your brand to become a pop cultural touchstone, how else do you get in front of the right audience, in the right place, at the right time?
Every day, we hear from agencies whose clients want them to come up with something new and different. Few advertisers are content with the status quo, but knowing what to do about it is another story. For many, brand integration is the place to go for that "feather in the cap" as an agency their clients can't live without.
Because the options vary so widely, however, developing an idea, then finding the right fit ends up presenting too much of an open-ended question. With lots of spend to cover and little time to do it, small custom deals are difficult to justify compared to much bigger, more clearly-defined ad buys, with measurable outcomes.
Native Ads to the Rescue?
For one media buying agency we talk to, syndicated sponsored content is a solution they use, albeit less than ideal. By pushing client-approved content through a platform like Nativo, they are able to secure placement on many sites at once, with great tracking to boot.
The problem, of course, is that they look at those placements as "advertorial" content, and not authentic integrations. The tactic fits their need to fulfill larger media buys and measure the outcome, but it falls short in their branding objectives, because most native ads often end up feeling just like that: an ad. Many blog publishers we work with feel the same way, and would rather not syndicate anything to their own publishing real estate.
As one agency rep put it,
Don't Product Placement Agencies Have This Covered?
Product placement agencies, and other kinds of brokers who help advertisers find the right placements for their brands have been at it for a generation. Like real estate agents, travel agents and stock brokers, however, they tend to focus on one medium, and keep the process closed and cumbersome.
We talked about this problem in depth when we explained why we're building a marketplace, not an agency, network or ad platform. Agents and brokers do have an important job to do when information and expertise is hard to find, but in many cases, that's not true anymore.
That said, efficiencies in the brand integration market just aren't there yet, which is why we do what we do. Here are five of the top solutions we think an effective marketplace should offer to help brand integration take off.
1. A Place to Find All the Right Opportunities
When buying traditional advertising, you know where to look and who to call-- the infrastructure is there. Not so with brand integrations. Media is so highly fragmented both across channels and with countless more properties to choose from, where to find the right opportunities is the first challenge.
A marketplace allows content creators of all types to list the placement opportunities they want to make available directly to advertisers. So if a podcaster wants to let advertisers know about her publishing schedule and the kinds of sponsorships she has available, she can do that and set her terms. At the same time, a blogger or YouTuber is listed in the very same place, making it much easier for buyers to find the inventory that's actually for sale, rather than hunting down potential partners one at a time and asking the same question, over and over again.
2. A Place to Share RFPs with the Right Partners
We know that when agencies want to get placements done, they can't just sit back and hope good opportunities present themselves. They embark on a heavy outreach effort to put their RFPs (requests for proposals) in the hands of any potential content partner. Often they rely on specialized agents like the ones we mentioned above, to delve into their own contact lists to get it done.
Once the RFPs are distributed, advertisers need to wade through the proposals and negotiate the final terms with each chosen partner. In the same way that a marketplace puts available inventory in one place, it would also facilitate buyers broadcasting their needs, to quickly and efficiently build a list of appropriate partners, reducing the need for creators to go out on the hunt for advertisers.
3. Standard Ad Units
Before the Interactive Advertising Bureau helped to establish standard digital display ad units, buying and selling online display ads was hard to do. No one knew what they were getting, without a great deal of back-and-forth. Brand integration is undergoing a similar phase in which content creators are starting to deliver brand integrations that fit an expected format. For example, YouTubers are beginning to use sponsored videos, branded videos, paid reviews and product hauls as discrete brand integration types with specific meanings.
When evaluating different opportunities, or sharing the kinds of deals they want, advertisers and content creators need a commonly accepted vocabulary to make buying and selling simple. When every deal first requires an in-depth discussion, fewer deals happen.
4. Standard Pricing
Over a year ago, we began surveying advertisers and content creators to find out how sponsored content should be priced. What we discovered is that no one really knows. Because custom placements take work on the part of the creator, they tend to set prices based on time, effort, and how much they like the brand. Advertisers, naturally, don't care what a creator thinks his or her time is worth-- they prefer a cost-per-thousand views (CPM) model, like they're used to from display ads.
Because placement types are so variable across media channels and even within a single media channel (see the ad unit discussion above), and also because they live inside the content, not next to it, how and when an audience is exposed to the brand makes pricing tricky. There are solutions developing, but until buying and selling happens in one place and deal terms are captured, there's no way to efficiently price anything. As of now, pricing follows a largely ad hoc process.
5. Buyer/Seller Protections
Following from the concern about ad units and price is the worry that whatever it is, it ends up being a bad deal. And since many brand integrations are developed in concert with creators who write and produce the content themselves, this is no small issue.
A display ad looks just like the advertiser expects it to. But what about a branded video? Is the brand presented in an appropriate light? Is the production quality as expected? Was the brand exposed to as many viewers as expected?
Conversely, content creators express concern that if they put in the work, they may not be paid in full and in a timely manner. When a simple creative difference can derail an otherwise promising collaboration, for some, the risk can be too burdensome.
By processing transactions through the marketplace in which clearly detailed expectations are standardized, and the disbursement of funds is controlled, buyers and sellers can more confidently pursue deals with parties they don't know. Mature industries have robust regulations that help ensure smooth transactions and perhaps that will develop in time. For now, however, the brand integration industry just needs a few simple controls, not unlike those that users already enjoy through markets like eBay
Brand integration strategies are growing up, and as traditional advertising yields more share to strategies that enhance the consumer experience, rather than interrupt it, the infrastructure that supports it has to grow up, too.