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Digital publishing trends for 2020 - 4. Is custom content the new king?

  • 26 December 2019 by
  • Krishna Kumar
Digital publishing trends for 2020 - 4. Is custom content the new king?

In the first piece of this series, I had postulated that content is no longer King. If content is not king, then who is? One challenger to the position is custom content. Custom content, or native advertising to call it by its other name, goes where content does not. Native advertising is content written for the advertiser and sometimes, by the advertiser or their agencies. It is called native advertising because it is advertising that has gone native- advertising that is presented with the look and feel of regular content. The publisher provides the platform and reach for the native advertising.

It is not as if native advertising or custom content is a new phenomenon. It has been there since ages, under different names - advertorial, sponsored feature, and so on. In those days, the fight between the church that was editorial, and the state represented by sales was invariably won by editorial and custom content was a very small part of the content mix in publications. Another reason for this victory by editorial was that media did not really have to fight it out for revenues. But that is not the case today. Advertising revenues are being squeezed from all directions and subscription revenues are also not that easy to come by. Thus, custom content is today a welcome addition to the revenue stream of any publisher.

Today native advertising deals are available where the advertiser can ask for specific content to be created and published, with guaranteed reach and distribution to specified demographics. Such packages are known to include web reach, social reach, downloads, views, video views, comments and leads among others. Access to editorial teams is also part of the game. There was a time when sponsored content used to be identified as such. But that may no longer be the case. For a reader, it is very difficult to make out the difference between neutral content and sponsored ones. In some publications the only difference between the two is that native advertising is available outside the paywall, while everything else is inside! And some do not even make that much of a distinction.

Taboola and outbrain tried to add programmatic real time bidding (RTB) to custom content. Their merger at the fag end of 2019 to "create a meaningful advertising competitor to Google and Facebook" is worth watching.

Like it or not, native advertising is here to stay. The pertinent questions are - how far can the publisher take the native advertising game? How much is too much? Will native advertising swamp out regular programming? Will readers start reacting to native advertising like they do to regular advertising. And finally, what role will the intermediaries and agencies get to play in this game?

It will be interesting to watch which way this tide turns.


This article is part of a series on Digital Publishing trends for 2020. You can read the others in this series below

1. It is the reader, not the content
2. Long tail content comes into play to increase pageviews
3. The lure of the walled gardens
5. Programmatic advertising and other technology nightmares
6. The bot brigade and more such frauds
7. What is happening to affiliate revenues?
8. The second digital transformation is well on its way
9. Are paywalls really the next big opportunity?