The real value of native advertising is in its ability to establish a link between two brands: the publisher's and the marketer's.
As a buzzword, "native" advertising is relatively new. As a concept, it's been around for years. You can call it integrated advertising, contextual advertising, even an advertorial: it's an ad that's made to appear as though it's part of a site's editorial content. Simple as that.
Turns out, though, that native advertising isn't simple at all. The Atlantic learned that the hard way earlier this month. If you spent any time on Twitter the evening the now infamous content went live, you know how thoroughly The Atlantic's story on the leader of the Church of Scientology - and its accompanying Scientology ads - nettled consumers (and a few publishers, too). Within 11 hours of its release the article and related ads were pulled, a public apology posted in their place.
This wasn't The Atlantic's first native ad campaign. The publication has been running sponsored content for roughly three years, calling the package "Native Solutions" (for an example of a campaign it created for Porsche, click here). According to Digiday, the customized ad program now accounts for half of theatlantic.com's digital ad revenue, and generates click-through rates of up to 400 percent.
Just two days after the Scientology buy went live, consumer technology company Samsung ran a native ad campaign on BuzzFeed, a site that combs the web to find and post viral content in real time. The article was titled "32 Instagrammers That You Should Totally Be Following." Featured in the piece were the global participants from Samsung's current digital photography contest, all of whom were given a Samsung camera and weekly assignments to take photos of the countries in which they lived. Even with its heavy-handed distribution of the Samsung name, it would be easy for a reader to mistake the article for objective editorial content.
Both of these native ad buys were an amalgamation of custom content and advertising. Both were clearly marked as sponsored or partner content. Yet the Scientology placement drew the wrath of the web while Samsung's didn't registered a blip. Why?
In part, it could be an issue of content; Scientology has its fair share of detractors, while consumer opinion of digital cameras is generally pretty benign. Of course, there's more to it than that. What follows are the two principles of native advertising that every publisher and advertiser must follow in order to succeed.
By definition, native ads are integrated. They're meant to appear engrained and natural; the whole reason marketers started using them was because consumers had gotten wise to banners and were turning a blind eye to their ads. Trouble is, when native ads appear too integrated, consumers feel duped. When an article flagrantly extols the virtues of a brand, readers grow suspicious. And if they happen to have missed that "sponsored content" label, they get downright mad.
Custom-produced content that features a brand and is surrounded by related ads is fine, as long as it's presented in a way that's notably different from standard editorial content. Fashion, food, and lifestyle sites are experts at tempering sponsored content with unique design in a way that makes native advertising more recognizable (for three great examples of this, click here). Think extra-wide banners, an excessive use of logos, and a promotional prompt, like a contest or coupon. You aren't out to bamboozle the reader - only to remind her that the publisher and advertiser are a team, and that both are working together to satisfy their audience's desire for interesting, valuable content.
The pinnacle of native advertising disaster is incongruence: when a campaign's tone isn't consistent with the publisher's voice. Custom content can rave about a product or brand, but if it isn't a product or brand the publisher would normally cover or endorse, it isn't going to fly. Certainly, some readers perceived The Atlantic's article as disingenuous because it likely wasn't an article the publication would have otherwise assigned. Though they may not always like it, consumers understand that digital publications rely on revenue from ads. That said, an obvious chasm between the seller and the buyer makes the idea of accepting money to run a campaign offensive, and can create a negative impression of all parties involved.
The real value of native advertising is in its ability to establish a link between two brands: the publisher's and the marketer's. If they're a match, there's an opportunity for a successful integrated advertising partnership. If they aren't, no wordsmith or tricks of page design can save them.
Advertisers and publishers both take a risk when using native ads, but if they're careful, it can pay off. Groucho Marx said, "Politics is the art of looking for trouble." Let's make sure the same can't be said about native ads.
Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.
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