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When will native advertising become legitimate?

Dec 15, 2015

Imagine if a website or publication paid you to run your ads. I know just reading that sentence would make a few of you snort with laughter. But is it such a crazy idea?

Because the ultimate test for legitimacy of content is if the publication carrying it will pay for it. Those publications pay for other editorial content they run. They pay for journalists and photographers to produce it.

For native to become legit, it must be as interesting and useful as the editorial. Not just LOOK as interesting as the editorial. Actually be as useful or interesting or entertaining.

If people are uncomfortable with native advertising, it’s because it seems to tricky. We all know that nothing annoys readers more than an ad that’s trying to trick them into buying something. That’s backed up by stats and observations from the Reuters Digital News Report 2015.

Display ads are just piggybacking on the editorial in the hope of interrupting readers. Native ads trick rather than interrupt.

But there is another way to look at them.

What readers see as legitimate

Just forget about the ads in a publication for a minute. That includes the native ads. Just think about the editorial. Publishers and marketers see that editorial as a big mass of stories that create a channel to a market.

But readers don’t see that.

Readers see each piece of editorial in that publication or on that website as competing with each other for attention. And they award their attention on the most attractive piece of content. But what makes one piece of content more attractive than another?

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We all know that. But some articles get help.

Editors know how to select which story would be the most attractive to readers. Then they gussy it up with snappy headlines, witty captions, and bright, dynamic photographs. There’s a whole process to selecting the right photo to illustrate an article.

These editors think about that audience every working day. So do the writers who create the stories. They are the talent you need to connect with that audience.

And frequently, that talent is for hire.

Average native advertising

Now, let’s look at your average piece of native advertising. There are some wonderful, best-practice examples out there. Think of the famous Netflix/New York Times ad for Orange is the New Black, or the great ads for Audible in the Start-Up podcast. Then forget them.

Most native ads are press releases, or brochure content that has been knocked together at the last minute.

If you sent a press release to a publication or a website, it is because you want people to read it. But if the editors of that publication disagree, do you really think their readers would like it more if you paid for it to be there?

Of course, they're not going to tell you that. It benefits the publication in the short term (because they get your cash). But everyone, including the advertisers, know their readers aren’t going to like it. So why do it?

How publishers do native

Back to the question of legitimacy. As far as an effective lead-building technique, native is already legitimate. When looked at as part of the mix of a clever marketing strategy, native makes perfect sense and has been proven to work. Publishers are reporting that native advertising is significantly more effective than traditional display ads.

But for it to take that next formal step, it needs to be as valuable as the rest of the content in that publication or on that site.

How do you do that?

The same way publishers do. They hire the best editors, writers, photographer and designers on a contract basis. They let them tell stories.

At some stage in a perfect future, agencies will do this. They will acknowledge that there is a difference between great copywriters and great storytellers. They will respect both art forms—but use copywriters for copy, and storytellers for storytelling.

This only becomes a challenge for brands if they confuse distribution with content. If they throw their hands up and say, “How can we produce a different piece of content for every publication we want to use?”

The answer is: you don’t. You produce content for audiences, not publications.

Going native the right way

Even though native is about blending into the editorial flow of a publication, its power and promise lie in the unique nature of the content. Content isn’t just words on the page, or pictures. It’s not even design. Content is ideas and stories. If your ideas and stories are as strong as the others in that publication, your native advertising will be more than legitimate. It will be celebrated.

And it will be effective, as long as you are measuring effectiveness the right way.

Native is one tool in the marketer’s toolbox. And like any tool, it has its specific uses and advantages. To labour the metaphor a bit too much - native advertising is a wrench, not a hammer. And you don’t use a wrench to do a hammer’s work.

To manage the ever more fragmented landscape, marketers and advertisers need to do two things. First, build an audience for their products or services, and then prove the ongoing value of those products.

If you use native advertising alongside display, DM and other forms of marketing, to focus on the audience rather than the sale, you are well on the way to success.


Rob Johnson is a director of Sydney-based content marketing agency Engage Content, as well as the author of a few books and the founding editor of Bite magazine, Vet Practice magazine, and many others. When not writing about content marketing, he leads a crack team of writers and editors all living a Gen-X fantasy existence in a top secret headquarters in Pyrmont, on Sydney's fashionable western side.

Story by Rob Johnson

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