Native Advertising is the future

As buzz words go, “native advertising” is particularly confusing. Many people believe it’s simply a new name for advertorial. But understanding the differences between these formats is vital to getting the most out of this exciting new model for reaching potential customers.

In this case “native” means that the advertising is tightly integrated into the editorial offering, not banished to the margins of the page or ring fenced away from the “real” content in page takeovers and interstitial placements. In a very real sense this advertising needs to be a part of the flow of the content – it needs to feels very much like it belongs there.

Where advertorial is a blatant advert doing its best to masquerade as editorial, a native ad is a piece of real editorial content that happens to be sponsored by a brand.

MAKE IT INTERESTING, MAKE IT SHAREABLE

The subject of the content is not the brand itself – no one is going to read 750 words about soap powder or cement – it’s an interesting and shareable topic related to the brand. For instance, if cigarette brands were still allowed to advertise, Peter Stuyvesant might sponsor features about snowboarding in the Andes or pleasure boating in the Bahamas.

Another vital difference is that while advertorial is written entirely by the brand and often resembles an elongated press release, native ads are written in collaboration with the editorial team of the publication in which they will appear. This editorial team is filled with people who are experts at speaking to their audience – why wouldn’t you want their help?

But perhaps the most important difference between advertorial and native ads is that native ads are integrated into the flow of editorial content. They aren’t shoved off to the side like the embarrassing guest who is only here because he offered to pay for the party. A native advert will appear in the same slot on a homepage that usually showcases un-sponsored content. Ideally it will also use the same template to display its content as the un-sponsored content.

This doesn’t mean that native advertising is an opportunity to fool readers into accepting your brand’s message as editorial content. If native advertising is to work consistently and for the long term then there needs to be an implicit contract with audiences: “we promise to always make sure you understand when content is sponsored and when it is not.”

CLEAR VISUAL SIGN POSTING

The most obvious way to do this is with clear visual sign posting. A sponsored feature should look different to the other content around it. Not radically different – the aim isn’t to ghettoize the native ads and defeat the point – but noticeably and consistently different. Wherever it appears, whether on the homepage or in the article template, there needs to be no ambiguity: this is sponsored by Brand X.

But there are other more subtle and important ways to differentiate this content. At the beginning and end of the text you should spell out the fact that this content is a collaboration between the publisher and the brand. Why bother doing this? Because many people now read websites using tools that strip away all of the visual furniture like navigation and other design elements. The same applies to RSS feeds: the visual context of the original site is absent. This kind of signposting may seem clumsy or like overkill, but wouldn’t it be a shame if 15% of your audience didn’t realise you were involved in this cool piece of content?

THE RESULTS?

But will people really click on this kind of obviously sponsored content? If you do it right, then yes. And click-through rates for these kinds of adverts dwarfs those of banner ads. Where a top performing display advert might get four or five clicks per thousand views, a popular piece of sponsored content could attract 20 or 30 times that many.

And that’s before you factor in the number of visitors coming directly via social media. Yes, social media. This is well written, interesting content that is tailored for the audience, remember? Why wouldn’t people share it with their friends?

This is great in theory, but will it actually work in the market? It is working already. Sites like Quartz and Buzzfeed are delighting both brands and readers with their native adverts. Some particularly successful native ads on Buzzfeed have generated literally thousands of shares on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Take a look at Nestea’s Buzzfeed page and an example of a page with definite viral appeal.

Native advertising represents a unique win-win opportunity for both brands and publishers. As long as we all respect the audience, remain entirely transparent and add big dollops of common sense, this could be the most important new model for digital advertising since pay per click was invented.

This article originally appeared on the Digital Loeries site for 2013. 

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