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Native advertising is one of the hottest marketing trends this year. From BuzzFeed to Twitter, the most admired businesses of our generation have been built on this supposedly new advertising medium.
However, from my experience, understanding of what it really means is surprisingly low. People might understand that it’s akin to what was traditionally called advertorial, but few recognise the nuances of what is a surprisingly diverse medium.
At its core, native is about advertising that aligns itself stylistically with the content of its host publication: it's commercial content that is native to its editorial surroundings.
However, depending on those surroundings and on the context in which it appears, it can take many forms.
There are three main approaches to native advertising:
This is the closest to the traditional advertorial model. In a newspaper this would be an ad that appeared in a similar style and content to the articles that surround it.
Online, the approach is similar. It’s advertising that appears as articles or content aligned with the editorial content on that site, whether this be text, video, audio or whatever.
The most high-profile proponent of this approach is BuzzFeed, which offers companies the chance to sponsor brand-relevant ‘listicles’ and other content that sits alongside its own original material.
BuzzFeed’s success has driven a huge explosion in this sort of editorial native, with sites across the spectrum adopting this approach.
However, there are two key downsides to editorial native. Firstly, many see this approach as blurring the lines between ‘church and state’: editorial and advertising.
If your editorial native content looks a little too much like the purely editorial content that surrounds it then editorial impartiality can be brought into question and publications can be accused of misleading the reader.
The most high-profile incident along these lines was the launch by The Atlantic of content sponsored by The Church of Scientology. The Atlantic was accused of failing to clearly label the content as sponsored, thus leading to the impression that the advertorial was actually editorial.
Editorial content is also limited in its scalability. Because the content is intended to align with its editorial neighbours, it has to be manually developed on a site-by-site basis.
This bespoke content might be hugely compelling for readers, but it’s also hugely time consuming for marketers, thus limiting reach and potential ROI.
Before editorial native became the advertising choice of the moment, social native was the leader of the pack. Social native is essentially advertising in social networks that is developed to sit alongside the social interactions that consumers undertake on those networks.
The clearest examples of these are sponsored tweets on Twitter and sponsored posts on Facebook. The power of these mechanics as advertising media is that they are not only native to their host, but they also carry the power of social recommendation, with brand sponsored content often associated with social relationship such as ‘Your friend likes this brand’.
Social native is appealing not only for its impact, but also for its scalability. With Facebook serving well over 1bn users, each consuming large amounts of posts on a regular basis, the potential for campaigns of scale is significant.
The primary downside of this approach is in the creative limitations that it applies. Unlike editorial native, social content rarely allows you to tell a detailed brand story, often limiting you to a few short characters and, if you’re lucky, a thumbnail image.
There are also longer-term concerns about the available inventory. It’s clear from usage rates that overloading social services with advertiser funded content has a direct negative impact on usage. There is therefore a finite amount of advertising that consumers will take and thus that advertisers can buy.
One of the newest forms of native advertising attempts to combine the power of editorial native with the scalability and reach of display advertising. It effectively attempts to align display advertising content with the site on which it’s displayed.
Rather than doing this manually, however, it can be enabled automatically using partner content from third party publishers.
For example, a car brand might advertise its latest model on a lifestyle website with links in the ad to complimentary content from an automotive website. If the user then clicks on the links they are then taken to the automotive site where relevant advertising from the brand will be displayed alongside the content.
By including third party content in an ad format you can increase engagement by moving the ad unit from purely commercial to semi-editorial status.
Clearly, this approach is limited within traditional, smaller banner sizes, with available real estate quickly becoming crowded. However, in newer large-scale formats such as the IAB’s rising star formats, brand advertising and editorial content can be comfortably displayed alongside each other.
These approaches might seem diverse, encompassing as they do pure editorial content, social media and display advertising. However, they carry a common thread, the use of editorial-type content to increase user engagement with advertising material.
Clearly, there are firm lines to be drawn to avoid accusations of misleading the user but, when used properly, these approaches can add value to advertisers through increased response rates, and publishers via increased inventory value.