Ah, that awkward moment when you’re interviewing someone about online advertising and you have to pause to quit your ad-blocking browser plugin so you can view a sample ad.

Clearly, I’m part of the problem, not the solution, for magazines trying to develop online monetization opportunities for their digital products. Yet most online advertising options, like banner ads, provide little profit to magazine publishers.

But a new (old) approach is rising to the rescue in the form of revitalized, interactive, and highly tailored sponsored content within digital magazine products. That is to say, yes, magazines are also taking advantage of the “native advertising” boom.

While some of the sponsored content looks a lot like digitized versions of the “special advertising sections” that print magazines have long used, today’s innovators are coming up with more creative ways to integrate sponsored content to increase its effectiveness and to maximize profit.

Sponsored content on the web and in replicas: GTxcel

One of the challenges of using sponsored content for today’s digital magazines is that standard PDF-like replica editions typically only include static ad pages, like those in print issues. GTxcel (the just-rebranded company formerly known as Godengo+Texterity) is releasing a new product, Turnstyle, that will allow publishers to add interactive sponsored content to an HTML5-based magazine app.

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Sponsored content on the website of Pittsburgh Magazine, one of GTxcel’s current clients.

Available first for iOS apps and later for other platforms, Turnstyle allows a publisher to insert interstitial full-page ads that can show video and lead to additional pages of sponsored content within the app, accessible through touch interaction with the ad. Readers can interact with all of this content without leaving the magazine app. Interactivity will be fully functional offline as well. Personalization and geolocation features are likely to be added in the future.

“In magazine apps, the industry is pretty much banners and ribbons at the bottom, maybe an introduction page. Then you get into the flip experience,” says Kim Keller, executive vice president for sales at GTxcel. “The ability for you now to be able to insert an interstitial ad that is completely interactive is very powerful.”

Keller sees this new product as especially valuable for magazines that want to create standalone special issues for regional or seasonal themes. “They can create it very easily with Turnstyle — a 20- to 30-page app with sponsored content that is highly interactive and relevant to that special edition,” he says.

The goal of the new product, along with the other sponsored content strategies GTxcel recommends for its magazine customers, is a positive user experience of marketers’ messages — “not sponsored content that gets in the way, that is obviously just an advertisement,” says Keller. “When a publisher does sponsored content correctly, the reader doesn’t care. They actually love it.”

Sponsored content made customized and current: Nativo

Part of creating a good user experience for sponsored content is ensuring a seamless, relevant look and feel in the context of a magazine’s usual content. Nativo (known as PostRelease prior to its rebranding this month) is creating ways to help publishers integrate native advertising (another term for sponsored content) into their web and digital magazine experiences with a smooth, integral feel.

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A sample of Nativo’s integration of sponsored content for Motor Trend.

“When [publishers] are redesigning their sites, they are looking at native advertising as not just an option, but perhaps their lead option,” says Justin Choi, CEO of Nativo. “They can get improved monetization because they’re focusing on driving engagement, as opposed to interruption” caused by banner ads and other forms of display ads.

Nativo allows publishers to use native advertising that marketers have tagged and customized in such a way that it matches the editorial content’s existing online appearance. So far, the company has attracted magazine clients including Maxim, Source Interlink (publisher of Motor Trend, among other magazines), and Entrepreneur Media. The service works across platforms, including mobile devices and the web.

“The publisher says, ‘I want the native ad here.’ They start tagging, and the system knows to replace those elements when they get a branded element,” explains Choi. “Once it’s integrated, they can control that native ad the same way they do other advertising. They can turn it on and off. They can geotarget it. All the same ad controls they can do with advertising, they can do it with native.”

This kind of branded content is an especially good option for mobile publishing, says Choi, at a time when other kinds of mobile ads are bearing little profit for publishers. While mobile traffic is growing rapidly, advertising formats for mobile haven’t adapted to maximize that audience.

“Monetization has to be solved by publishers. Smart editors realize that. Native placement works remarkably well on mobile, for the user experience but also for monetization,” says Choi. “Publishers are thinking of this holistically.”

Of course, making sponsored content or native ads a truly seamless part of a digital magazine experience is an issue of not just transparency, but also brand voice: Who produces the content? What kinds of brands fit with the publication’s editorial perspective? Nativo’s focus is on the technology to integrate these ads, one part of what Choi calls a “whole ecosystem now helping brands produce better content.”

Sponsored content across media properties: Brightcove

For companies that publish more than one magazine or have other digital properties, the ability to reuse sponsored content across more than one website or app is alluring. The same content can be rebranded and republished in more than one place, maximizing its value to the publisher.

Brightcove is one company exploring ways to make this reuse easier for publishers. With a long list of magazine publishers as customers, Brightcove’s platform allows the sharing of a single video — like one created by a sponsor — in different settings, with unique branding and distinctively formatted players for each publication.

“If I’m … creating sponsored content because it has good upfront value and will invest my reader, I’m going to take that sponsored content across a number of platforms,” says Chris Johnston, vice president of digital media solutions for Brightcove. “If I have that on my homepage, that’s great, but if I have another property that has a whole gallery of videos, it adds value to them, too. If another property has a feature on a related topic, they may already have a video, but they may want to show another to show depth of knowledge.”

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Some of Brightcove’s work for Wine Spectator.

The possibility of applying sponsored content to multiple media properties may appeal to publishers that want to make the most of an initial foray into sponsored content.

“Most magazines aren’t working on lots of sponsored content. They more typically lean towards the traditional CPM-based model because it’s easier,” says Johnston. Creating sponsored content in-house for an advertiser, or managing its creation by an outside firm, is difficult for publications already stretched to just create their print and digital products. “Lots of content creation and distribution takes effort,” he says.

So while magazines may like the idea of integrating more sponsored content into their digital products, and the payoff may be greater than the investment in other advertising efforts, it’s going to take time for these innovations and others to find a place at many publishers — plus a willingness to face the other challenges of sponsored content, like ensuring readers’ positive experience of the content and maintaining a consistent editorial identity.

Keller of GTxcel, however, is optimistic, comparing the integration of sponsored content today to the early adoption of Google AdWords by publishers.

“They had text in them, and people were concerned it might look like editorial. It’s not uncommon for that view to be applied” with sponsored content today, Keller says. “What we’ve found is that over time, as more and more publications have adopted native advertising, that concern has subsided.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

Image of vintage TV by William_H. on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.