You've Heard of Banner Blindness; Get Ready for Content Blindness

4A's Conference Kicks Off With the Promise and Pratfalls of Native Advertising

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One of the most nagging problems in digital marketing could bleed into the industry's next frontier. That was among the chief concerns raised on a panel during the inaugural day of the 4A's Transformation conference in Austin.

When digital took off, display ads soared; then consumers grew weary of banners. Now, nearly every brand, agency and publisher is creating an abundance of content, with an abudance of channels. As advertisers rush in, looking for new ways to reach consumers skeptical of conventional marketing, that rush could dull its impact.

"There's banner blindness. Over time, we'll start to see more and more content blindness," said Elena Sukacheva, managing director of global content solutions group for The Economist Group. "We'll see more and more marketers releasing control of the messaging."

Who exactly has and keeps that control was the topic of the panel, which included executives from brands, agencies and publishers. It was left unresolved. But the panel agreed that the production of native advertising is on the rise.

And so are its challenges. Chief among them is the conundrum that consumers, particularly younger ones, are less susceptible to traditional promotions from brands.

"People don't want to be sold to," said Mark Renshaw, Global Chief Platforms and Partnership Officer, Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide. Jimmy Maymann, CEO of Huffington Post, said his digital publishing powerhouse now nets a third of its revenue from its in-house content marketing team, which was created two years ago. He concurred with Mr. Renshaw, but noted that the spread of native content provided publishers and brands conventional messaging opportunities. More sponsored articles means more room for display ads to wrap around them.

At the panel, the Economist Group unveiled new research on content marketing: a survey of 1,500 marketers, c-level executives and millennials. They found a wide disconnect between content creators and consumers. Ninety-three percent of marketers reported connecting content with products and services and a majority (75%) said content should frequently mention products.

A bulk of their audience, however, spits that out: 60% of survey respondents claimed they turn down content that sounds like a sales pitch. Instead, three-fourths of respondents said they look to content for insights or ideas related to business. "Marketers really miss the mark when they communicate to an audience," said Ms. Sukacheva.

The survey focused on business-related content produced by marketers and agencies, not publishers.

Still each speaker, while bullish on content marketing, noted that the practice in any form has considerable room to improve. Jason Hill, global director of media and content strategy at GE, one of the pioneering brands in native advertising, claimed continued cooperation between marketers, publishers and agencies should allow for better content.

"People still love a great story, well-told. I think great stories can be told in native," Mr. Hill said. "I think it's also easy to do a lot of crap in native."

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