A $2,000 Native Advertising Experiment–what nonprofits should know

A leading cancer research organization wanted to magnify three of their active content campaigns. As a progressive digital team, they turned to a new promotional medium: Native.

They wondered: “Could Native advertising amplify our existing content campaigns?”

What’s Native again? Check out this piece on the Strength in Members blog for a quick refresher.

This organization had three content pieces that it was successfully promoting with Google AdWords, each with its own marketing goal:

  1. Brand Awareness: An article highlighting recent groundbreaking research funded by their organization
  2. Brand Awareness: A personal story of a mother struggling to find her next steps after her child’s died from cancer
  3. Audience Growth: A teaser article for loved ones to offer support during challenging times, which enticed visitors to download a PDF guide in exchange for their email address

With help from LeadPup, this organization created a separate Native advertising campaign, spending a total of $2,000 for 30 days of promotion. We chose Outbrain as our Native platform, largely because of its low campaign spend minimums. Outbrain also relies on its own targeting algorithm to optimize your spend, eliminating some of the manual work of targeting and refining audiences.

We started with up to ten creative combinations (image and headline) for each of the three content campaigns, and set a maximum bid at $0.83 per click. This is in the mid-range of Outbrain’s suggested bid, and keeping all three campaigns’ bids equal allowed us to easily compare the traffic driven between them.

As Outbrain’s optimizing algorithms worked, we slowly removed lower performing ad sets to divert our budget spend towards the highest performing ones. By the end of the thirty days, we’d narrowed down the two awareness campaigns to a single high-performing image with two headline variations. We also narrowed the audience growth campaign to two image variations with the same headline copy. Ultimately, all three campaigns ended with an average Cost-per-Click just below our maximum bid of $0.83.

nonprofit native advertising tests as seen on Forbes.com

Lessons Learned

1. Native works well for awareness, not conversions.
Overall, we were impressed by the reach of Native, but not the engagement. While over 3 million people saw our ads, post-click engagement remained low. This is a factor of two things:

  1. Our CPC Bidding – Had we bid more (for reference, $2 CPC is considered very high for programmatic ads), our ads may have appeared in front of higher quality web surfers—emphasis on may—who would engage more. Nevertheless, high CPC can help, but success ultimately relies on Outbrain’s targeting algorithm and depends on a touchy combination of factors, including:
    The quality of the publisher (e.g., ESPN.com vs. “podunklocalsports.net”)
  2. Publishing content relevance (i.e., how relevant was the original content piece to our cancer-focused pieces?)
  3. User behavior (i.e., do our ads get shown to highly engaged web-surfers?)

Native’s Relevance Ceiling – As a medium, Native is betting that it can serve consumers paid media content that can capitalize on the specific content they’re viewing, typically found through organic means, by providing more, relevant paid content. However, there are only so many highly relevant paths to your paid content. While Native platforms’ web coverage is impressive—Taboola claims it reaches 90% of monthly U.S. web users—this often means your ads will get shown to some obscure audiences. In our case, ads were likely shown to audiences well beyond the users who were already looking for helpful cancer-related content that we hoped to pay for. By relying heavily on user-context, Native is prone to coming up short when it stretches the reaches of a “relevant” audience in order to spend your budget.

A simplification of how native advertisers, platforms, publishers, and ads work
A simplification of how native advertisers, platforms, publishers, and ads work

For example, your $1 CPC bid could get “optimized” by being shown to five 20-cent web-surfers. While these five clicks are great for your brand’s reach, they are “low-value” surfers, and extremely unlikely to continue engagement with something like an email signup. What’s more, by setting your spend as a daily budget, Outbrain will spend your dollar on those five low-quality clicks to ensure that it uses all of your budget that day, rather than waiting for higher-quality clicks. To the typicaladvertiser, this appears as a low average CPC (what a deal?!) and the chance to re-up your spend, despite the low post-click engagement. This is how many programmatic platforms get you to spend more, often without getting you closer to your larger campaign goals (such as purchases or email signups).

2. Keep it approachable
Cancer is a tough subject to broach, as are many of the issues our nonprofits tackle. Unfortunately, this can confound your advertising if you’re not careful, especially with programmatic (automatic) platforms where you don’t place the ads yourself. In our case, the ideal ad placement is to someone who, via their previous browsing behavior, has demonstrated that they are primed to read more on our tough-to-read subject. In a perfect world, all of our budget would go towards serving ads to this primed, but rare segment of web-surfers.

However, without direct control over ad placement, our ads will inevitably appear outside our perfect segment. As this happens, web-surfers who are not primed are being asked to make a large departure from their comfort zone to view our content. Our Native ads were bringing up cancer in conversations—or rather, in browsing sessions—when it may have been inappropriate. As a result, while our ad impressions were strong, this could be a contributing factor to our lower-than-average clickthrough rates. This same effect can be observed in all of the sensitive subjects that our nonprofits tackle.

You may be thinking, “Low clickthroughs? Low control? Why would I ever try Native?”

Our experiment was extremely informing, but the results are specific to this client’s content campaigns. We will use this first test to understand if/when Native should be used in the future.

We encourage you to keep these lessons in mind as you begin to craft your next media campaign, and to continually try new, innovative techniques. Native is a vast space, and there are endless ways it can help nonprofits accomplish their fundraising and marketing goals.

Afterword: Big thanks to our client, who was willing to try a new digital medium. While the results were not a homerun, the lessons learned will continue to improve future campaigns—theirs, and now yours. Even more importantly, their willingness to try will undoubtedly continue to drive strong, long-term results for their digital marketing and fundraising campaigns.

Have you tried a new advertising medium? How did it go?
Tell us in the comments below.

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