Sometime next Wednesday, celebrity scientist Bill Nye will take a seat in front of a computer and invite the internet to ask him whatever it wants. But he won't be taking the questions on Reddit, a medium famous for its "Ask Me Anything" sessions. Rather, Mr. Nye will be operating within the comments section of Gizmodo, a Gawker Media website on a page sponsored by State Farm. The entire interaction, from start to finish, will be an ad.
After declines in revenue brought about by rising mobile consumption and real-time auctions for ads, publishers are working harder to offer advertisers creative ways to reach their readers outside of banner ads. Stirring some consumer emotion, they now argue, gives them a better chance to win over coveted brand dollars, so that's what Gawker is trying to do.
"At the end of the day our sales team is made up of marketers," said James Del, head of Studio@Gawker, the company's in-house creative department. "Their primary concern is helping their clients communicate their point, not simply slinging banner ads or logo slap sponsorships."
Mr. Nye's Q&A is part of a new "native" ad format that Gawker has been trying this year. The company is working with advertisers to host sponsored discussion sessions on its Kinja commenting platform, hoping to turn its community into an engaged audience its advertisers can tap into.
State Farm, said Mr. Del, has proven willing to experiment. The Q&A with Mr. Nye, he said, is one of four sessions State Farm is running with Gawker as part of a "Summer Science Symposium," which brings in scientists to chat with the readers of Gizmodo.
Gawker stands to rake in solid revenue from the engagement too. Mr. Del said that campaigns run from a low range of around $100,000 dollars. "We've run a few seven figure campaigns," he said. "For larger programs and larger conversations, the sky's the limit." Outside of State Farm, Gawker has worked with clients such as Virgin Mobile, HTC, Blackberry and Intel. There have been 42 sponsored conversations in all.
State Farm, of course, will need to figure out whether having its brand next to an intriguing conversation unrelated to its offering is worth the money it's shelling out. The campaign's goal, Mr. Del said, is to drive home a message that a State Farm agent is a trusted adviser. And making scientists available to chat with consumers, he said, is a good way to do it.
"Where else can they convey the idea that when you rely on State Farm, you're not just getting a canned response, you're getting an agent?" said Mr. Del.
Whether it works or not is yet to be determined, but Gawker's attempt is notable in that it emphasizes the quality of a native ad over just format at a time where seemingly every ad not a banner lays claim to the term. "Most traditional publishers only consider the container in which the 'native' advertising lives," said Mr. Del. "At Gawker we believe the content in that container is just as important to consider -- if not more."
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