By Robert Rose published August 26, 2013

Why Native Advertising Is Neither

brand-native advertisingIn preparation for one of CMI’s upcoming reports, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a number of companies that are in what’s being called the “native advertising” space. Through this experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that, while the technique can potentially create significant value, native advertising is actually neither “native” nor “advertising.” It is simply one aspect of the larger discipline we know of as branded content marketing.

Native by any other name

According to Wikipedia (which I chose not because of, you know, Wikipedia, but because it seemed to be the only place offering one up), native advertising is defined as:

“…a method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing valuable content in the context of the user’s experience. Native ad formats match both the form and the function of the user experience in which it is placed.”

In short, native advertising takes content and places it in the context of a publisher’s site. So, whether you think of it as an advertorial, a paid guest post, a sponsored tweet, or just a really extensive ad, it’s basically paying for your engaging branded content to have a prominent and contextual place on somebody else’s platform.

To be clear, the intention of my discussion here is not to dissuade anyone from using yet another term for a type of ad unit — I accept that there are plenty of people who like the term, and are working to further the practice, overall. (Heck, even the IAB is working on creating native advertising standards, backed by a full-on task force.)

My passion is, of course, content marketing — helping businesses understand how the creation and promotion of powerful content can positively affect a holistic marketing approach. So, from my perspective, I think the real distinguishing factors of “native advertising” are that it should rarely be truly “native,” and that it requires a fundamentally different strategic approach than traditional advertising.

Why it’s not “native”

One of the most popular reasons that native advertising seems to be getting traction is it’s characterization as being engaging, wonderful content that’s placed contextually (i.e., natively) within the design of the target site.

This isn’t a new concept, of course. Placement of content within the context of a consenting brand has been going on for years — especially in Hollywood, where I reside. Most every guest you see on a talk show is there to promote their participation (or approach) within a “product,” be it a book, movie, perfume, kitchen gadget, etc…. As the audience enjoys the colorful anecdotes and wacky skits, the underlying purpose is overtly (or covertly) marketing related. Not to mention that advertorials have been around since the 1940s; for example, take a look at an article from a 1962 issue of Mechanix Illustrated about why toupees are just awesome:

grow hair-native advertising

That’s right, “hair from live European peasant women” (ahhh the 60s…).

But what is new is that online publishers and social networks are now offering up dynamic space on their sites to make this happen. And therein lies my problem with the “native” part of the term. You might as well call it “invisible” advertising. See, native advertising advocates say that, from a consumer’s experience, the promoted content should be so completely contextualized that it is indistinguishable from the editorial content featured in the publication.

As a content marketer, this proposition runs completely contrary to my goals. I always want my content to be so remarkable that it stands out and compels the reader to take an action. In short, if I’m expected to be successful in native advertising, I would WANT that content to stand out and effectively compete for attention against every other piece of editorial that’s there. In fact, as a marketer, I wouldn’t even need to care if readers ignore all the other articles — as long as they read mine.

So, you can be damn sure I’m not just going to create something that looks just like another piece of editorial the publication is running. I’m going to give audiences something that pushes the envelope and is extraordinary, unexpected, and/or extremely useful. My goal is to leverage the publisher’s brand and their audience, and “steal the show.” I want that audience to disproportionately consume, enjoy, and share MY content.  So, like any great talk show guest, I’m going to push that edge as far as I can.

In fact, with few exceptions, my aim is to create content that stands out so well that you can’t help but notice the ironic, inherent pitch in there. I’m leveraging the fact that it’s in context with the brand to draw a certain reaction from the audience. A nice example of this is what Dodge did with The Onion, making fun of the up-front advertising event and how it markets to millennials.

dodge-the onion

That’s one fine-looking interruptor.

So, in actuality, the less “native” content is — and the more I can creatively leverage both brands in context with each other — the more powerful it can be.

And that brings us to my second point…

Why it’s not “advertising”

Read any article on native advertising and you’ll find that there is a concerted effort to stress that it is “Content”(with a capital “C”), not a traditional banner ad, or even a branded call to action.

So, aside from the point that it is a “slotted” space in a media outlet that has been paid for by a sponsor, the main reason that the “A” word is inappropriate is because of the ultimate goal of the marketer.

No matter what your view, an advertisement’s goal (whether, it’s promotional, branding-focused, direct-marketing focused, etc.) is to promote its product or service.

However, the stated purpose of native advertising is to engage with content that may or may not (and arguably shouldn’t) promote the product or service. In fact, Adam Kleinberg made a great case on why bad native advertising is worse than regular advertising in a recent AdAge blog post.

The point is that if we are going to successfully utilize contextually placed content to achieve a marketing result, we have to think about it differently than we would an advertisement. Engagement with the content may be all that we are looking for (though I’d argue that it shouldn’t be), but it’s certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison between how marketers will measure traditional and native advertising.

I absolutely agree with proponents of the native advertising approach who say it can be beneficial to the consumer because it removes a layer (e.g., a landing page) from the consumer’s interaction with the content. That’s an important value. But it means that we, as marketers, must rethink what kinds of goals we want to achieve with contextually placed content. It is, quite simply, different than our goals with advertising.

Regardless of the name, it’s a process that can work

It’s certainly early in the game, and much experimentation is needed to find the balance with this approach. But native advertising is not just repositioning advertising as something “new.” And, candidly, the arguments over whether this approach spoils journalism or taints the press are not my fight as a marketer.

My job is to create useful, remarkable, and differentiating content that helps me change or enhance the behavior of my potential customers. If there’s an opportunity for me to promote my content through a like-minded, branded site, where I can leverage that brand’s value to promote my cause or my differentiated approach to solving consumers’ problems, you can bet I’ll take it.

The main challenge with the term is that it’s a classic case of an inside-looking-out naming convention. From the publisher and technology provider perspective, it makes perfect sense to call this product native advertising. But from the customer’s perspective, it does not.

My goal as a content marketer — and as a potential consumer of the product of native advertising — will be to make my content stand out so that it’s as conspicuous as possible, and so it supports a much different goal than to promote my product or service.

So, what should it be called? Native? Advertising? To be candid, I don’t really care much. I just know that the process needed to make the technique succeed will be neither.

Don’t miss Robert Rose’s workshop on building and growing a content agency/ consultancy at Content Marketing World 2013. Register now!

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory - the education and advisory group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has just been released. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” You can hear Robert on his weekly podcast with co-host Joe Pulizzi, "This Old Marketing”. Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as Akoonu, DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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  • Ben Bradley

    Really great post! I like your take that the message shouldn’t be “hidden”!

    I think that “native advertising” can work and be effective on multiple levels. One way to look at it is from the viewpoint that content creation/volume are some of modern marketers biggest challenges. This can be a way to help add good content to the portfolio.

    I recently wrote a post on how to measure the success of native advertising that might help if you proceed with these methods:

    • Robert Rose

      Thanks Ben….
      Appreciate the kind words… it’s definitely a new and different approach… I think it will take real experimentation to find out where in the funnel it makes the best approach… Thanks for continuing the conversation…

  • Dave Link

    Thank you for somewhat debunking what’s often seen as a new marketing buzz term! Personally, I’ve been a bit fascinated with the obsession around ‘native advertising’ that marketers have shown over the past 12 months or so.

    To me, one should always match the message with the medium in which it’s being displayed, so it hasn’t seemed like a remarkably new concept – just common sense and user-centered thinking given a new name. Glad to see there are others in the industry who view this as more of a shaping of content than a truly new approach to delivering a message.

    • Robert Rose

      Dave… kudos to you sir…. And thanks for that… “shaping of content”… well said.

  • aboer

    You say that “native advertising” should *exceed* rather than blend into the standards of the editorial. But there is a much better reason why native advertising should not feel indistinguishable from editorial. It destroys trust. I love David Foster Wallace’s quote from his famous 1993 essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Have to do Again.” This is my test for content marketing…does it feel like a “fake smile”?

    “This (a native advertising essay in a cruise ship magazine) is extremely bad. Here is the argument for why it is bad. Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisements primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too – that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated – and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.
    An ad that pretends to be be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwills’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”

    • Robert Rose

      Thanks for this absolutely advancing comment.

      So – I absolutely agree with you on Trust, and I think (sadly) the Wallace quote at this point, 20 years later, is quaint. With today’s highly fragmented audience and the ease in which information (ersatz content) flows from digital publishing tools, the lines between advertisement, earned media and created art begin to blur substantially. I *know* instinctively that every guest on John Stewart wants me to buy their book – but I’m good with it, because I enjoy the banter.

      And that’s the key – as you say – it’s trust. This is where the publishers will ultimately have to filter (or not as the case may be) advertising content to either have it rise to the brand’s occasion, or face the brunt of their viewers. And this (again) is not my fight, though I’m interested to watch the heavyweights go at each other.

      As a marketer – i’m always looking for new methods and approaches to aggregate an audience, use content to promote the approach I’m trying to promote. I just know that if this method survives (and I think it should) that marketers will fundamentally need to NOT think of it as advertising.

      Thanks again for such a thoughtful comment.

      • aboer

        Thanks for your response.

        And I agree with you re: Wallace. His view does seem dated and quaint, and I can’t wholly embrace it being a content marketer myself, I do find the clarity of his views seductive. (I sometimes feel the same way about Ron Paul).
        I occasionally revisit that passage to remind myself that just 20 years ago there was a relatively bright line drawn between content and marketing, between editorial and advertising, and the mere notion of “indistinguishable from editorial” would be anathema.

        I concede the line is probably less needed today, not just because advertising is failing, but also because social media and comments provide a good set of checks and balances. When the Atlantic makes a misstep like the Scientology debacle, they are quickly reprimanded.

        That said, I am increasingly of the opinion that the more brands can separate their content from their marketing, the better they do at it.

      • Paul Chaney

        I’ve been debating the “sponsored content (aka native advertising)” meme since back in the Ted Murphy Pay-Per-Post days – when there was no mandate to disclaim that, in that case, a blog post was, in fact, an “advertorial.”

        That said, my issue has and always will be one of trust. If we abuse the reader’s trust, then what legs are left to stand on? Authenticity, transparency, “openness and credulity”…. all are cornerstones to building a long-term trusting relationship with the consumer.

  • CaptainQ

    Ah your article, therefore, is native advertising for Native Advertising? Just kidding.

    Agree the trend is neither native nor advertising and in my view any naming convention puts lipstick on a really ugly pig. In the good olden days we used to call native advertising “advertorials” (almost always found in newspapers and magazines) so poorly and bombastically written these were all too easy to spot and despise. My fear is with the newer native advertising the sponsorship line has now been irrevocably crossed for all media forms, including news media, if it wasn’t already.

    An ethical issue most certainly emerges. I do not see any possible good from this whatsoever. “Native” “advertising” is typically generated in fun now but what’s to stop large organizations (corporate, political, and government) with dark agendas from sponsoring/purchasing ad time that looks and feels like true news, and even replaces true news? Nothing.

    • Robert Rose

      Captain…. Agreed this is an important discussion – but while I’m glad to have a cocktail debate about that – I have (as my dad used to say) no dog in that fight… That’s for the publishers to debate with the way they serve their audiences… What I *would* say is that clumsy advertising is clumsy and great content can be great… It’s a spectrum… The idea behind it is for consumers to judge… Thank you for the great discussion…

  • Scott Pannier

    “Native Advertising” is definitely a buzzword, where a couple of publishers are riding its coattails. I agree with you that when done right, sponsored content or content marketing can absolutely work. Sponsored content can also scale as well, not just implemented on a one-off basis. Wish I could make it out to this conference, sounds like it’s packed full of sessions and discussions.

  • Tangerine Digital

    Hey Robert, an insightful
    post. Using different terms instead of
    Content Marketing like Native Advertisement will nowhere match up to the essence
    and effect Content Marketing have on its audience. We at Tangerine Digital ( agree with your
    comment that ‘Content Marketing gives audiences something that pushes the
    envelope and is extraordinary, unexpected, and/or extremely useful’.

    Thank you so much.

    Team Tangerine Digital