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Case Study: Native Advertising in the Orange County Register

December 7, 2014

NATIVE ADVERTISING is “meant to embody the idea that, on any given environment, a piece of advertising will be more effective if it feels native to that platform. Ad ad on Twitter should look like a tweet. An ad on Facebook should look like a Facebook update. An ad on a Google search should look like a search result.” — Joshua Benton

This is the second of a two-part series on the Orange County Register.

If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing environment in the last few years, you’ve been reading about native advertising. Native advertising as summarized by Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, is “meant to embody the idea that, on any given environment, a piece of advertising will be more effective if it feels native to that platform. An ad on Twitter should look like a tweet. An ad on Facebook should look like a Facebook update. An ad on a Google search should look like a search result.”

Native advertising in newspapers has been a controversial subject with the journalism profession quite concerned that native advertising crosses the line between journalism and advertising. Benton does a nice job of summarizing the subject and saying enough already in his article, Like it or not, native advertising is squarely inside the big news tent. It’s a good read whether or not you’re well versed in the subject.

Native Advertising and the Orange County Register

Native advertising by higher education institutions has been in the news in the last couple of years as well with the case of the Orange County Register and its native advertising campaign with three universities in Orange County, California.

In the new OC Register, publishers Eric Spitz and Aaron Kushner created a higher education section that would run one day per week. And for that section, the Register asked the county’s three biggest higher education brands–University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and Chapman University–to be a part of it. No other colleges or universities need apply.

Of course, my bias should be noted as I am chief marketing officer for a private university in the county that was not allowed to participate in the higher education section, along with a few other private universities and all nine of the community colleges in county.

Needless to say, the new higher education section was controversial. I’m sure just about all of the colleges and universities shut out of the higher education section were wondering how that section could be called Higher Education when it excluded more institutions than it included.

But the controversy about the new higher education section wasn’t just local. At the 2013 Council of Independent Colleges’ College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., I listened to Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, cite the apparent conflict of interest inherent in a newspaper selling native advertising space to local universities. How would the newspaper be necessarily critical of the three universities from which it receives revenue?

Media Matters for America was more direct in its blog post, How a California Newspaper Took $825,000 to Shill for Local Colleges, wondering if the effects of the conflict of interest were already beginning to manifest.

But the reality is that even if the OC Register had allowed us to be a part of that section, the price of admission was too high (reportedly $275,000 annually). There’s no way that I would devote that much budget to a such a limited market (OC Register subscribers).

Native Advertising Campaign in OC Varsity

OC Varsity Native Ad

OC Varsity Native Ad

However, the Register has a tradition of covering local high school sports well in a featured section of their newspaper–the Saturday OC Varsity–and we’ve had our eye on it for quite some time as a place to advertise our Master’s in Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.

After voicing our disappointment with the OC Register in being excluded from the higher education section of the newspaper, we found common ground with the development of a native advertising campaign in the OC Varsity for our MCAA program.

Our Master of Arts in Coaching and Athletic Administration program is the top enrolled program in the market niche. It’s an applied program that can be consumed online, face to face, or by any combination thereof. Our students come from all over the United States and the world, but we’ve been expanding our media advertising in Southern California.

The native advertising program in the OC Register ran from November 2013 to June 2014, and consisted of a once per week back cover ad that provided helpful and insightful content for coaches and athletic directors. We saw it as a way to brand thought leadership for our program, and to brand the university to prospective students and parents, coaches, and school administrators.

The Register was great to work with on the campaign. The Register, and our MCAA/Communications teams created the design template and subject areas collaboratively. The articles were written by the Register staff, and edited by our MCAA program. The project was managed on our end by our Communications team.

Given our concerns about the Register’s hard paywall, what made the project doable for us was that in addition to running the ad in the print and website editions, the Register would also place the ad content in front of the paywall, which meant we could share the content. We could also repurpose it. The content was ours to use for other channels.

And that’s what I liked about the campaign. The campaign was content marketing. On multiple channels we were providing helpful content and displaying thought leadership on issues related to coaching and athletic administration.

Campaign Metrics

We viewed the campaign as a qualified success. That assessment was based on feedback gleaned from surveys taken at MCAA info sessions and from anecdotal comments and questions on the articles from coaches and athletic administrators around the country (shared by us via social media). Those were the results we all loved. Our prospects were engaging our content.

However, what the campaign didn’t do was drive the needle with website traffic and inquiries–the metrics we use to assess advertising effectiveness. This is typical for print advertising in the current market. While a reader can click-through on a digital ad, print advertising doesn’t offer that option.

And that was the rub when we considered continuing the native advertising campaign this year. Ultimately, we decided we needed more return on our investment, and we weren’t willing to invest more in print native advertising at this time.

Native advertising on a digital news channel

Such may not have been the case if we were talking about a native advertising campaign on a digital news publication, like Mic. I read this tweet over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend:

The Digiday story highlights Mic’s decision to only sell native advertising. It describes how General Electric is using Mic’s native advertising strategy to reach Millennials, and how it’s getting results.

Since it launched last week, 320,000 people have visited the “Map Your Mind” landing page and 116,000 have started the quiz, 88 percent of whom have completed it. The BrainMic channel itself has been viewed 3.2 million times and shared 620,000 times. BrainMic stories have even climbed the ranks of reddit’s top stories and have gotten picked up by news outlets like The Huffington Post. — Digiday

And there you have it. GE’s native advertising campaign included paid media (native ads on Mic), owned media (its landing page only a click away), and shared media, all of which are components of how content is distributed and shared, and of how brands are built today.

Which brings us back full-circle to the Orange County Register and its failed attempt to move the dial back to essentially a print-only business model. By doing so, the Register failed to leverage today’s powerful market dynamics for its brand as well as its advertisers’ brands.

That’s frustrating to this advertiser, and it certainly factored into our decision not to continue the campaign. However, that’s not to say we won’t do the campaign again. But what will continue to factor into that decision is the state of the Orange County Register. We’ll be paying close attention to it.

Part One: The Orange County Register. The Market Wins Again.

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