With online advertising in the throes of a full-fledged panic about ad viewability, marketers are turning to native advertising and branded content as digital Xanax to alleviate their stress. While anxiety about unseen ads is well-founded, this road of what we call “next-gen digital” holds new bumps and curves for marketers to navigate.

It’s a fact that consumers are ignoring ads like never before; banner blindness continues to plague the industry. On top of that, it turns out that even if consumers were paying attention, many ads wouldn’t be “in view”: They’re served below the fold or take more time to load than viewers typically spend on a page.

So how can you make sure your ads will be seen?

Get ads into the content. Think about it: What are you looking at right now? The editorial content on this page. And that’s where most people focus their attention, reading articles, looking at pictures, viewing videos, and listening to music. We are humans and it’s what we do. If we’re listening to a friend’s playlist on Spotify and a commercial comes up, guess what? We don’t necessarily love the intrusion into our content stream, but I doubt that the ad will enrage you, and you may even pay it some mind – or find yourself paying a subscription fee to go ad-free.

Companies like Sharethrough (and Vibrant Media) are creating “in-content” brand-discovery solutions that get brand messages into those content streams, where consumers are actually paying attention. These are the polar opposite of the old static banner ads that sit quietly in the right rail of the page, just waiting to be ignored. We’re creating exciting, contextually relevant rich-media brand canvases that take all of your great content – such as the social media channels you spent so much sweat and treasure to populate – and bring it into the editorial well, where it’s ready to be discovered by consumers who are interested.

Now that you’re in the content, what are you going to deliver?

Two types of content can be served in the stream, via such technologies as our In-image and In-text delivery platforms:

  • Ads: There will always be a place for “traditional” digital advertising, whether it is a 15-second web video spot or even a banner ad with a simple call to action. However, we have seen that advertising performs best when it delivers genuine value to the consumer. Create ads that are relevant, fun and engaging. Want to do display? Then make it radically different, like this one from Ikea. Reel people in with ads that are contextually relevant, and really useful like these Jeep ads that run alongside news stories and highlight road conditions and weather info. 
  • Content: Much of the buzz around native advertising focuses on branded content or sponsored content, such as what you see on sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. It is clear this will grow as an opportunity for publishers seeing their revenue squeezed both online and off.

As Kevin Delaney, editor in chief of the new online publication Quartz, has said: “I think the older forms of advertising are relatively broken and the right rail ads on traditional websites are not great, for the most part, for readers or for advertisers. I think that there’s an imperative to rethink how advertising is handled, and I think sponsored content is an interesting approach to it. It puts some onus on the advertiser to write things, or post videos, or do data visualizations, or whatever they do, that are compelling for readers to actually spend time with them and share them. In some ways, it makes the advertisers’ challenge similar to the challenge that an editor has — that the content be compelling.”

And that’s the rub: someone is going to have to produce all this content, or “branded content” will become just another version of your TV ad. Brands such as Red Bull, Coca-Cola and Macy’s are setting the pace for content-marketing programs, and grabbing greater share of budgets.

However, not every brand is going to develop its own content shop with a healthy budget. We should hope to see “hundreds of content shops” blossom, whether they are small home-based operations in Brooklyn or big-time offshoots of ad agencies. We’ve already seen some PR firms get into the game.

Whatever its origin, content is the key (along with context, of course) to the hearts and minds of consumers. Ads need to be fun, value-adding, and “content-like,” and they need to be seen to be appreciated. Just keep in mind this important promise between the brand and consumer: You have asked them to engage, so your ads had better be engaging. As Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, said recently: “Our business is only going to work if we’re putting content in front of our users that they want to see and that they engage with. And that’s the simple equation. If we do that, the users will be happy, our business will work, and our advertisers win.”