If you’ve read any of the trades recently, you’ve heard the buzz about native advertising and its promise of improved engagement.
Discussions, fueled largely in part by Facebook’s introduction of sponsored stories and Twitter’s promoted tweets, have pushed the case for native’s importance beyond the usual advertising technology circles into broader channels like Business Insider, TechCrunch and publications that typically cover a more holistic beat.
So why, all of a sudden, is native the topic du jour with the marketing cognoscenti? One might argue it’s because we, on both sides of the advertising/publishing aisle, are coming around to the notion that developing a robust advertising business calls for a lot more than simply building a massive audience and filling pages with ads where few users would ever think to look. Advertising needs to have an impact if it’s going to be effective, and a proven way to create such impact and effectiveness is to make ads an integrated — or native — part of the user experience.
Where our industry has gone wrong, though, is in equating native ads to a format that’s only technically the same as the normal user experience. Take Facebook as the perfect case in point. The logic behind Facebook advertising asserts users “like” and “comment” on stories friends post in their feed. Facebook wisely used this dynamic by creating sponsored stories — and that name pretty much says it all: an ad format customized for specific users that’s displayed inside the feed and that people can like and comment on.
Thus, we conclude that if the sponsored story bears any kind of resemblance to other content on the page, it is, by definition, native.
Even if sponsored stories are technically the same as other content, they — to use Clayton Christensen’s “milkshake metaphor” — don’t help users accomplish the job they’re hiring Facebook to do. For example, I’m an active Facebook user; I hire Facebook to share my thoughts and experiences and to see what my friends are up to. A sponsored story, in my case, does nothing toward helping me accomplish this goal. Contrast that with Google AdWords, a format that supports the reason I visit Google in the first place: to find what I’m looking for.
Advertising is native only when — and if — it aligns with our goals as a media consumer. This is not a new idea. On the contrary, it’s how all great advertising works, not limited to highly functional examples like AdWords. Native advertising, done right, is the perfect recipe to deliver happy customers (both consumers and advertisers) and to develop a profitable media property.
My favorite example of well-integrated, value-adding ads are in lifestyle magazines. We buy these glossy publications to be inspired, entertained and informed, and we also look to them to find products we might buy. Ads in lifestyle magazine are not shouting at us; rather, they’re an integral part of the experience and in some cases, are more welcomed and appreciated than the content alongside of which they run. In fact, I’d argue that if you were to ask the typical Vogue reader to buy the magazine with or without ads, most would choose the issue with the ads. In effect, readers pay for advertising in print, whereas in digital, they pay to get rid of, bypass or skip ads. Is it possible to recreate print’s success in digital media? The short answer is yes. In fact, we know of several publishers that create and deliver advertising products that add value to the user experience.
As readers get more advertising on their screens, they stay longer, return more often and are more likely to share content with friends. And advertisers pay more for each contact, driving revenue to publishers who, in turn, can be invested in creating an even higher quality experience. That being said, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe to solve this. Every combination of readers, content and advertisers is different, and the only effective solution is one that’s been customized against specific goals and objectives.
The key to success is for media companies to stop looking at advertising as a necessary evil to monetize their audiences and start thinking of how advertising can add real value to the user experience. From where we sit, one great way to do that is by going native. Let the ads compete with editorial content. Done right, you’d be surprised how often the ads come out on top.