Let’s start with the same definition of native advertising from Forrester we’ve used in the previous article.

Any form of paid or sponsored content that directly and transparently contributes to the experience of the site or platform where it appears, by aligning with the format, context or purpose of that site or platform’s editorial content.

Emphasis is placed on how the content aligns with and contributes to the experience of the site or platform where it appears, instead of how it aligns with the advertiser’s brand and how relevant it is to the goals of the advertiser.

This kind of content certainly ends up being native, but if it advertises anything at all, it’s not the brand that paid for it. The problem rests mainly on the lack of narrative.

Let’s observe this by looking at a few examples from Sharethrough’s Sponsored Content Leaderboard.

Measuring sponsored content success

If we exclusively use use social actions as a measure of success, then this content is incredibly successful.

Instead, if we judge the content by how effective it is in doing the job of advertising the brand that paid for it, then a very different picture emerges.

25 Places that Look Not Normal: advertising for Mini USA

The title of the piece forces the words “not normal” into the copy to align it with Mini USA’s not normal marketing campaign on other channels.

Beyond that there is no connection to the brand and the commenters are quick to point out how awkward the use of “not normal” is and offer more appropriate alternatives.

17 Problems Only Book Lovers Will Understand: advertising for HarperCollins

A publisher of such renown should associate its brand with educational and informational content focused on encouraging positive reading habits but instead the content is a combination of meme-based GIFs that make the brand look like the class clown instead of the educator.

5 Real-Life Stories of Twins Creepier Than Any Horror Movie: advertising for BlackBerry

What do insane Swedish twins and twins marrying twins only to have twin babies have to do with BlackBerry or telecommunications? How does this kind of content give BlackBerry the kind of enterprise exposure that is essential to its business?

Beats me, but then again so little of what BlackBerry does nowadays makes any sense at all.

While these are some of the worst examples of companies using native advertising for exposure over relevancy, the rest of the leaderboard is not much better.

The Jonah Peretti School of compelling storytelling

Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti is a strong proponent of native advertising, which makes sense since Buzzfeed revenue growth depends on it.

According to Peretti, native advertising is content marketing that tells compelling stories that people love to share.

It can be short form and long form journalism, lists, quizzes, video, graphic art, and GIFs – though by most accounts the company almost exclusively uses lists, images, and GIFs to promote advertisers’ brands.

While Buzzfeed doesn’t practice what it preaches, we can learn a lot from the company’s mission statement.

If you were a slave to the numbers you start creating more stuff [that generates traffic] and more stuff like that and more stuff like that, and pretty soon you will have a site full of trash and salacious garbage.

So what should your goals be?

Barometer for successful native advertising

Some of you will want to jump in and argue that native advertising should consist of branded content stripped of any marketing intent, but that is a misguided impulse.

Brands understand the native part of the equation – “[contributing] to the experience of the site or platform where it appears” – but they need to learn about and embrace the advertising part of the equation as well.

Without both of those aspects in place, not only is editorially native advertising not disruptive, but it is regressive.

Native advertisements should tell compelling narratives that are tailor-made to contextualize the brand for a particular audience in a way that makes the brand personally relevant to that audience.

We need to start taking the message of compelling storytelling to heart and engage with audiences in an authentic way that chips away at any cynicism they might have towards the advertised brands.

The audience should care about and want to connect with the brand – that is how success should be measured.

As Jay Rosen recently pointed out:

If the advertisers are smart they will insist on clear differentiation [between sponsored and non-sponsored content] because that insists on the quality being good, maybe better. When you see advertisers blur the lines, that could be interpreted as lack of confidence in their own material.

When you feel the need to hide the fact that something is branded or marketed content, it means either you’re promoting low-quality content or you’re promoting a low-relevancy brand/product to the audience.

I discuss this process at length in my no-nonsense guide to ROI in social media: you should tell a narrative that helps prospective consumers discover, contextualize, engage with, trust, and care about your brand. If you’re not accomplishing that sequence of events, you’re wasting your money.

Native advertising the old school way

Native advertising doesn’t break away from the fundamentals of advertising. As Kunal Gupta concludes in a recent piece on VentureBeat, “quality matters; quality of content, quality of audience, quality of engagement”.

Take for example what we did at The Art of Manliness a few years ago. Every few weeks we would have an advertiser come to us and tell us about a product they wanted to expose to our audience.

We would review the product to determine 1) is it a good product? and 2) is the product relevant to our audience? If the answer to both of those was ‘yes’ we would develop a narrative around the product and present it to the audience.

In this particular instance, we partnered with Char-Broil Grills to share ‘tru-isms from Dad’. You don’t have to take my word for it, just read the 1800+ unique comments on the piece (in the span of 1 week) to judge how well this went over with the audience.

We didn’t shy away from anything – we promoted the brand, we promoted the product, and we did it all in the context of a narrative that resonated with the community and contextualized the brand/product for them.