The Urban Legends of Native Advertising

Next time you talk to publisher, brand or agency about the future of advertising, start a stopwatch. Odds are, within two minutes, the topic of native advertising will come up. The problem? There is no industry consensus on where native is heading – much less on what it even currently means. We asked several publishers what they consider the truths, half-truths and common misperceptions of native ads. Here’s what they had to say bouncy inflatables:

Native advertising is new.
False. Native advertising is old wine in a new bottle. Advertorial stretches as far back as the late 19th century when John Deere created “The Furrow,” a magazine to teach farmers how to make more money using John Deere products. Native advertising isn’t even new for the digital age. Google’s AdWords are native ads, as they match the form and function of search. What is new with the latest iteration of native ads is that established  publishers are finding they have the ability to create content — something they’re quite good at — for brands that are not known for their content. But as the pervasiveness of native ads seeps into the mainstream media groundwater, questions of editorial integrity arise. This is where publishers need to tread lightly. Ask The Atlantic. Or, actually, maybe you shouldn’t.

Native doesn’t scale.
Mostly false. While native advertising feels like it is created for the sole purpose of a particular site, a rising cottage industry helps  native ads reach a wider audience. Tech companies like Simple Reach, Native Lift and Nativo deliver native ads across a network of publisher sites. Publishers can also purchase traffic from across the Web. Thanks to content ad networks, targeted Facebook ads and discovery engines like StumbleUpon, this has become easy and cost-effective. For example, this BuzzFeed sponsored post by Mini USA on the “25 places that look not normal but are actually real” has almost 1.3 million social interactions, including 7,000 Twitter shares and 110,000 Facebook shares and likes.

“Some may frown on amplification as ‘traffic buying,’ but if you amplify properly you’ll be reaching your same audience elsewhere, like Twitter or Facebook,” said James Del, head of Gawker’s content studio. “That’s very different than the click farm most people associate with traffic buying.”

Any brand can do content-based native ads.
True. Not every brand can be Nike. But that doesn’t mean brands cannot latch onto topic areas of interest to their customers. GE is a shining example of this. GE is not looking to sell airplane turbines to people. Instead, it uses native ads to reinforce the idea that the company is innovative. Take, for example, GE’s native ads on BuzzFeed earlier this year. It had a series of posts around the Paris Air Show, like this one about the amazing things you’ll see at the air show and this video about incredible flight discoveries you had no idea existed.

“The good news is that you have the opportunity to help shift their perceptions by aligning your brand with compelling content that delivers value to the reader,” said Tessa Gould, director of The Huffington Post Partner Studio. “Always ask yourself, ‘Will the reader find this useful, interesting and entertaining?'”

The product should be front and center.
Mostly false. This is the “make the logo bigger” of native advertising. If the content is surrounded by your ads and adequately disclosed as sponsored, more likely than not, the consumer is going to get that it’s branded even if the product isn’t plugged directly within the content. Take, for example, this Virgin Mobile post on BuzzFeed titled “20 People That Are Doing It Wrong.” There’s no Virgin Mobile product in the post at all, and it’s been shared 700,000 times.

“It’s no coincidence that some of the most shared sponsored content on the Web doesn’t contain overt calls to action or the brand’s product on every second image,” Gould said.

The challenge is that a viral post doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers will equate the content with your brand.

Native advertising is for the long term.
Mostly true. Sure, there are opportunities for one-off programs, but the most successful ones are approached as a long-term endeavor. Take Forbes Brand Voice. The platform was designed for brands to be able to present ideas in a way that doesn’t jam a brand’s message down the reader’s throat. Some are insightful, like this Q&A with Nate Silver and SAP’s vp of customer experience marketing. The industry calls this “thought leadership.” But it’s still an ad, and brands like UPS and SAP invest a lot of money and effort to create this content. If you want to run content on Brand Voice, it’ll cost you $50,000-$75,000 a month for a minimum of three months. 

“Even if your brand is behind the most viral listicle, tweet or YouTube video of 2013, the glow is going to fade — and fast — unless it’s part of a longer-term content strategy,” Gould said.