Buzzwords are the lifeblood of the pundit industry. We watch for the emergence of neologisms that capture people's attention and help to define an idea or a movement or at least a moment. Sometimes these are truly new words (like "meme") and sometimes they are horrible concoctions made of other words (like "advertainment"). Sometimes the buzzword is the mutation of a word from one form to another (like the word "game" becoming "gamification"). Sometimes they are simply new adjectives added to existing ideas.
It's an example of that last sort that we need to examine today. The phrase that has popped up lately is "native advertising." I have to admit I heard this term used at least three times until I decided it was time to figure out exactly what it was. Native advertising refers to an approach to both creative and media where the ads are built into the publisher's environment in a natural or "native" way.
This is not product placement, necessarily. Rather, this is an attempt by the advertiser to add to the content experience, but in a way that communicates something about the brand or the product. Probably the best examples out there right now (at least for consumer-facing products and brands) are on BuzzFeed. The site is the perfect collection of easily consumed bits of content (with some real news sprinkled in). BuzzFeed is delightfully addictive, offering articles like "30 Incredible Rooftops You Should Be Lounging On Right Now."
BuzzFeed, though, doesn't have ads on its site. At least, not ads in the way that we are used to. Consider a similar site: Cracked. It also has these list-based articles that tap into popular culture. Cracked is monetizing its audience by placing ads around the edges of that content, the way we are all used to. But BuzzFeed is offering something different. It has content that has been custom-built for a brand and placed alongside the rest of the articles. For example, there was an ad for another publisher - The Economist - on the site when I visited it. The ad was an article titled, "9 Things You Didn't Know About Some Of The Biggest Stories Of The Year." The article was interesting in and of itself, but also provided relevant links to stories on The Economist's site.
The ad communicated something about the brand (that The Economist goes deeper into the stories you already know), but was presented as a native element on BuzzFeed's page. Native advertising at its finest.
It's About Content Marketing
Native advertising is really a part of the content marketing revolution. We will always have "ads" as we have come to know and love them. But we are also seeing the opportunity to talk to consumers in longer and more meaningful formats. Content marketing tells us that we can achieve a greater bond over the longer term by creating useful and valuable things for consumers. We can put these longer things on our own sites and spaces (like YouTube channels). But now we can also think about placing these pieces on other, popular sites.
However, before you dive into the native waters, there are a few things that are worth thinking about. Here is a short list of the elements of going native that you need to consider.
The single most important thing to remember about this (or anything else that you put up) is that quality matters. An advertisement, very broadly defined, is anything that is shown to a consumer as a way to prompt an action or opinion. That means that, although we are talking about creating a content piece, with paragraphs and graphics and explanations about how things work, it needs to be great. You need to invest in a good writer and an artist and someone who knows how to structure a story and keep people engaged. Put as much effort into the presentation of this content as you would anything else that you want to move people to do something.
It is not entirely clear yet how, but it is clear that Google is paying attention to how this native content is appearing on sites and linking back. The next generation of the algorithm (called Penguin) is going to pay special attention to the way that links appear on sites under a paid agreement. This is important: links to content have long been considered a way to determine the value of content to a community. If these links are appearing as part of a paid agreement, we would assume that Google will not count this, or (worse) count it against you. If you are using native content as a way to spread your content across the web, you should expect that this strategy will dry up. Take a few minutes to watch the latest video from Google. It gives a good sense of what to expect.
In that traditional advertising model - where the ads appear on the side of the content - the ads are generally created by an agency (or, possibly, the brand itself) and they were served often by a third party. The native advertising model really challenges this. In order to be sure that the content being added is, in fact, native (meaning a natural part of the content experience), the content is generally made by the publisher.
What does that actually mean for the agency and the server? It's way too early to tell yet, especially as native advertising is truly in its infancy as an idea and a practice. It certainly is an evolution of what has long been promised: ads that don't disrupt, but rather add to an experience. If nothing else, we are starting to see the bar being raised for advertising. We need to make sure that we are always making things that are worthwhile.
Image on home page via Shutterstock.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014