Consumer tech and lifestyle publisher Digital Trends always tries to provide what its brands request – rich media, video, custom units, home-page takeovers – but that can-do attitude is tested when it comes to native advertising and sponsored content.
Since it was founded in 2006 out of Portland, Ore., product reviews have formed the core of DT’s editorial output. Hardware manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Microsoft, HP and Toshiba ship product samples to Digital Trends’ editorial staff to get reviewed. Even auto manufacturers like Ferrari will make their vehicles available for inspection.
Brands can provide the tech, but they can’t sponsor the actual reviews. It’s a hard and fast rule, said Peter Jacobs, VP of marketing and general manager of DT Design, an in-house creative agency that develops ad units, infographics, sponsored content and branded and original video for Digital Trends’ stable of advertisers, including Intel, Google, Best Buy, Ford and GM.
“Brands or their agencies will come to us and say, ‘Hey, so, can you get your editors to write a review of Product X?’ – which is why we have a very strict church-and-state filter in place,” Jacobs said.
Ultimately, Digital Trends is a mashup of custom content, tech news, how-to manuals and product reviews. The lines can get blurry, admitted Andrew Budkofsky, EVP of sales and partnerships at Digital Trends, but never blurry enough that an advertiser would be given editorial control, like in April of last year when BuzzFeed admitted deleting three articles from its site because of “advertiser complaints.”
Take Microsoft, one of DT’s main advertisers. Digital Trends Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Kaplan once decided to immerse himself in Windows products over the course of a month – PC, laptop, tablet, wearables – and then write about them. “It turned out not to be the greatest experience for him, and he let everybody know it,” Budkofsky said. Microsoft remains an advertising partner.
Samsung, another Digital Trends advertiser, feels the same way. Although Samsung, like many of its hardware manufacturing counterparts, sends sample tech to the Digital Trends editorial team for reviews, it’s a function that remains completely separate from the brand’s advertising effort, said Jeff Liang, SVP and deliver lead at Starcom Worldwide, which handles media buying across channels for Samsung.
“We work together or we surround the content with advertising to enhance the experience of the brand,” Liang said. “We’re trying to complement the content, not just create another bunch of advertisements.”
Not only will repackaging a press release as editorial content not fly, “it’s not in the brand’s best interest either,” Jacobs said.
And that’s because engagement with straight-up sponsored content just isn’t there. “Readers can tell,” said Budkofsky. “It’s very hard to direct traffic to those kind of sponsored buys.”
It’s a tough balance to strike considering roughly three-quarters of the campaigns sold on Digital Trends include at least some form of custom content. The answer is as obvious as it is tricky to execute – content that people actually want to read and ad units that complement the reading experience.
Although Digital Trends claims a wide visitorship among consumers in-market for electronics and devices regardless of demographics, the majority of its loyal readers are mainly mid-30s millennials with an average income of around $100,000. They have a predilection for authentic content and an aversion to advertising that stands in the way of content consumption.
Which is where DT’s in-house ad and content lab comes in.
Digital Trends recently partnered with Qualcomm, for example, on a Tinder-inspired unit that included six pieces of existing Qualcomm video content. Users could swipe right to see more or swipe left to dismiss the ad completely.
“We looked at what is becoming one of the standard mobile behaviors and brought that into the ad unit,” Jacobs said.
The purpose was to satisfy the advertiser by providing a branded experience without having to link out to the brand’s website and take readers away from the publisher’s content, as most ad units do.
Publishers have a vested interest in keeping their advertisers happy, but they also, obviously, have a vested interest in keeping readers on their own property as long as possible. The swiper unit, as it’s called, is a sort of mutually beneficial compromise.
For the brands that sort of thing can involve a certain loss of control over the creative and development process.
But it’s for the best, said Starcom’s Liang.
“We challenge our publisher partners to think of ways to get through the clutter and combat the things that decrease digital engagement like ad blockers and banner blindness,” he said.
Samsung has worked directly with Digital Trends on a number of different campaigns, including one around the launch of its Galaxy Tab S2 in September, which involved a home-page takeover and contextual placements around related content – and unrelated content.
“We’ve found conquesting to be quite an effective way to remind people about our brand when they’re in the marketplace searching for a product,” Liang said. “Check out some of our competitors’ products and you’ll see our ads surrounding their content.”
Samsung, Starcom and DT have also collaborated on several custom ad units. One is a countdown clock that appears within a thin strip at the top of the site before a big Samsung product launch.
“It helps generate excitement but it also serves a practical purpose, and that’s simply to help readers know when the product is available,” Liang said. “For that kind of thing we run branding studies rather than just looking at click rates alone.”