The Five Contradictions of Native Advertising

All articles | Marketing
Published Feb 07, 2014 | Written by Keith Errington

Digital marketing sites, content publishers, pundits, brands and regulators currently seem obsessed with native advertising.

The IAB have created a task force and published “The Native Advertising Playbook”. Adweek, Marketing Week, Mashable, even the Guardian are talking about it.

Recently the Sunday People website was relaunched funded solely by native advertising, and even more recently still, it’s been closed due to lack of audience.

At least one content marketing expert has said it is neither ‘native’ nor ‘advertising’. So what is it? Is it the next big thing in marketing? Should it be part of your essential inbound marketing toolkit?

Let’s look at a definition first – the advertising part is easy – a paid for message. Now, if the native part is conjuring up politically incorrect images of indigenous peoples holding banners or painting their bodies then, thankfully, you are quite wrong.

Here native is more in the sense of; “belonging to” – “a part of” – “at one with” – and in this context it means content that compliments its surroundings.

Now you may be thinking advertorial, and some is very similar, but advertorials have a bad press (almost literally) because of the poor way they are often thought about and executed. Instead of advertorials complimenting a reader’s experience, they often interrupt and intrude; with messages and content that are not aligned to the reader’s interests.

With advertisers finding that banners and traditional ads are struggling to engage, native promises to break through the banner blindness that reader’s have, to reach the unreachable consumer, to create a win-win situation in which both viewer and advertiser get something out of the experience.

“You are more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad”
Solve Media

But it is based on five contradictions:

If you create content that is interesting to the viewer and fits within the experience of the surrounding editorial then it is unlikely to feature obvious marketing messages and will not be effective.

Conversely, if you create content with a heavy marketing message – like the worst of advertorials, the viewer will ignore it.

Creating content that is of interest to the viewer and contains little in the way of a marketing message is actually creating content for the publishing site. You are paying to provide them with free content. Take a look at Buzzfeed for examples – these have almost no branding or marketing.

Who is benefitting? The reader and the website.
Who is paying? The advertiser.

If you are creating marketing content that fits in with the general content, blends in to the site and has little branding, how does the customer know it is an advert? When they click on links and go to a selling page they will feel deceived, and as we know, lying to someone is not the way to start a relationship.

This is something the regulatory bodies are getting to grips with– for now their advice is very clear – paid for content must be clearly labelled as such.

“In order to create fully native advertising you,
by implication, have to lie to the reader”

It undermines the publishing site. This is something many sites eagerly promoting this format have yet to grasp; by having paid for content alongside their own they will inevitably undermine their authority and independence. If the goal is to create paid-for content that ‘hides’ amongst regular content, the viewer will start distrusting everything.

On the other hand, if you have clearly branded or labelled paid for content alongside regular content it just looks like advertising and you are back to banner ads and bad advertorials again – making the site look cheap.

In either case the site will lose its value to its audience – bad for them, bad for the audience and bad for the advertiser.

It will – should – compete with the other content around it and if done well – will likely capture the audience. So it has the potential to take the audience away from the surrounding site content. It may well bring the audience with it and leave the hosting site with no audience. With no audience, the hosting site will have no appeal, and will be unable to attract it.

Content providers should therefore jump at the chance, but host sites should think twice about it in their long-term strategic thinking.

So how should you use this technique?
Too heavily branded and marketing led and it’s really just an advert.
If it fits in too well you are lying to your customer.
If it lacks a marketing message it’s just content – with no marketing benefit.

Whilst navigating this potential minefield is difficult, it can be done. Let’s take a look at a few parallel examples.

Firstly, TV advertising; the best TV adverts are entertaining, memorable and yet clearly branded. They sit alongside your programmes and yet are separate from them. Yes, many adverts are an excuse to make a cup of tea – but some you look forward to and a few you will happily watch again and again.

Secondly, viral ads shared on facebook. Clearly branded videos with a high entertainment value work well – again they sit in someone’s facebook stream, but they are clicked on and watched.

Thirdly, twitter – all tweets arrive as part of a stream, so any tweet by a brand could be considered native. A good tweet gets retweeted and shared. The best offer something to the reader, but have value to the brand tweeting too.

All these examples have three things in common.

  • They offer something to the audience
  • They are clearly branded
  • They are difficult to get right

Marketing is about answering your audience’s question “What’s in it for me?” whether that be a deal, useful information or entertainment. If you fail to answer this question you will have no audience.

Marketing is about answering your audience’s question;
 “What’s in it for me?”

You cannot and should not lie to your audience – but branding can be, and should be, a benefit. The brand should stand for something – something the audience recognises and empathises with. Here it will definitely work better for established brands that the audience can relate to. Unknown or poorly received brands will struggle. Once again in modern marketing, the value of a brand is key.

Whilst this latest marketing trend is difficult to get right, content creators will understand the issues. It is all about creating great attractive content that adds real value to the reader, that incorporates appropriate marketing messages and branding and is placed in complimentary surroundings.

Native marketing will be a big topic in 2014, whether for good or bad will depend on advertisers understanding the importance of placing appropriate, quality, branded content.

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Published by Keith Errington February 7, 2014
Keith Errington