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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