Native advertising is redefining marketing boundaries in the never-ending battle to win audience attention and engagement. With users more likely to see, engage and share native ads over many traditional advertising methods, it is no wonder that brands are quickly evaluating how they can incorporate this medium into their marketing mix.1 Today’s definition of the concept continues to rapidly evolve, and the trend is showing no sign of slowing with native investments predicted to reach $4.6 billion by 2017.2 However, while it can be powerful, brands must understand its parameters to get the most out of their investment and avoid adverse effects. Native ads land on the fine line between content and advertising, requiring brands to take an in-depth, target-focused approach to ensure the medium is drawing the user’s attention effectively.
WHAT IS NATIVE ADVERTISING
Native advertising is sponsored content, or the intentional placement of a brand within a space to add content or relevance to the user’s experience. The advertisement flows within the content stream for the user.
The definition and examples of native advertising will continue to evolve as quickly as consumer content resources. The concept is not new, but it has recently created more opportunity in the digital space, giving publishers new ad space and revenue. What started as product placement and advertorials years ago has evolved into sponsored search results, brand-generated articles, partner blog entries, or promoted social media posts. There is a broad spectrum of native ads that will continue to evolve as brands and publishers find new, creative ways to deliver quality content to audiences in native places.
The Guinness Guide to Oysters ad from 1950 is one of the earliest forms of published native advertising. The advertorial was a buyer’s guide to oysters, a popular pairing with Guinness beer.
WHY IT WORKS
Traditional advertising messages typically lay outside of user content, and are often focused on convincing rather than providing useful information to the user. Because consumers receive hundreds, even thousands, of commercial messages every day, brands are looking for other ways to put their message at the forefront in a relevant, valuable and less-intrusive way. Consumers are demanding more from brands, too. Social media’s open forum has increased their expectations for higher quality brand content.3
The most effective advertising messages resonate with the target audience, and the same reigns true for native advertising. Effective native advertising gives users content they want, where they want it. Giving users valuable information makes them more receptive and likely to engage with the ad. If the messaging is trustworthy and interesting, it can hold their attention longer while positioning the brand as a thought leader.
Brands agree native advertising works because it serves the interest of the audience. It engages with a more relevant message rather than focusing on click-through rates or a direct increase in sales, showing the brand’s personality and credibility within a category.4
Native marketing is missing the point if it does not mimic the surrounding content, but it should not deceive the target audience. It’s the fine line between content and advertising that makes it so effective, but also presents challenges.
Today’s evolving regulations leave room for interpretation and margin for error. Brands and publishers are left using their own moral compasses in content, placement and disclosure. Without proper transparency, users can be misled, perceiving a native ad as a bait-and-switch tactic rather than an informative and useful brand piece.
And creating the right content requires work. Native advertising pushes marketers to develop creative, relevant content for consumers without a direct sell of the brand. The value propositions are less overt, but the messaging complements the brand while adding value to the user’s experience. This philosophy better aligns with how consumers use media today, but the obscurity leaves brands evaluating native opportunities with caution.
The New York Times introduced T Brand Studio, their in-house native advertising content team, with an elaborate article sponsored by Netflix on female incarceration. The ad included video and informational charts within the editorial, providing insight and emotional stories to pique interest of the target consumer segment while promoting the season premier of the Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black.
Marketers are intrigued by the user engagement possibilities, but the results can be difficult to directly quantify because it is an investment in the long-term brand building. It may fall short if confined to only traditional ROI metrics because it can be subtle brand messaging rather than direct selling. And, unlike traditional ads, every native advertising opportunity is unique. Ads are likely not reusable in other media, so time and resources need to be invested in creating each ad without the economies of replication.
STAY FOCUSED ON THE TARGET. Only mimicking content is not enough – it must align with the goals of the target audience as well. Rather than simply extending your current marketing messaging, start with a deep understanding of and focus on the target segment. Knowing the wants, needs and desires of the target will inspire authentic content that is more likely to resonate. Speaking too broadly will not only dilute the message, but is more likely to alienate your target because they won’t see the value.
Johnny Walker partnered with Thrillist’s brand partner program, Allied, to create “Scotchtales.” The custom content series of whiskey-centric articles included expertise and tips for their target demographic of the modern gentleman.
PARTICIPATE – DON’T MISLEAD. A native ad should be positioned naturally within the surrounding content, in a place that makes sense, to keep the focus on the content rather than the brand. However, transparency is necessary. Tricking the user into clicking on what they believe is editorial content diminishes the brand’s credibility. The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Native Advertising Playbook provides recommendations for “clear and prominent” disclosure, and it is beneficial to always err in favor of the target. No ad is worth betraying the target audience.
Buzzfeed offers “social advertising” with custom social posts created by Buzzfeed based on the brand’s identity and goals. Advertisers are labeled as brand publishers at the top of the post. Hidden Valley partnered with Buzzfeed during the launch of their updated product recipe that they proclaimed as “the new ketchup” to promote new product uses for consumers.
FIND THE RIGHT PARTNER. Brands must take full ownership of their ads, including placement. Native advertising has opened new ad space for publishers, but brands must evaluate the opportunity to decide if the partner and placement is a good fit. It may be where the target audience is, but irresponsible execution of the ad can be off-putting to the user. Brands must work with credible partners that align with their priorities to ensure the ad meets the brand’s objectives.
Brandvoice is Forbes’ brand-generated content that is published alongside editorial and user content in print and online. Brandvoice content is labeled and linked to an explanation of the program for the audience. IBM partnered with Brandvoice to publish business-targeted editorials by IBM’s thought leaders that supported their “Smarter Planet” brand positioning.
UNDERSTAND THE VALUE. As with any media, opportunities must be evaluated to determine how they fit in the marketing mix to achieve an end goal. The goal of native advertising is brand building, and it is better measured by understanding the correlation between user engagement and the probability to purchase within that segment. It is more accurate to measure awareness and attitudes rather than focus on traditional ROI metrics.
Native advertising is a quickly evolving concept that presents the opportunity for brands to connect with their target audience in a valuable way for engagement that rivals editorial content. The challenge is adding the right content in the right context, but when done well, brands will create a meaningful connection with their target that goes beyond what most traditional marketing methods are able to deliver. Those that most accurately understand their target audience will find the most effective native ways to add to the conversation, resulting in more audience engagement and brand strength.
1. Sharethrough, Inc and IPG Media Lab, Native Advertising Effectiveness Study, 2013
2. BIA/Kelsey, U.S. Local Media Forecast, 2012
3. Forrester Technographics Digital Consumer Community Report, September 2012
4. Hexagram and Spada, State of Native Advertising, 2014