What if TV ads were interrupted with short spurts of news? According to John Oliver, this would be fair compensation for a recent unfolding trend: native advertising.
Also known as branded content and sponsored content, native advertising can be understood simply as paid-for content that assumes the look and feel of its surrounding environment. Equal parts effective and controversial, native advertising has become less of a fringe tactic for brands, advertisers, and agencies because it can effectively engage audiences in a meaningful context—with precision and at scale.
But this isn’t a new concept (as John Oliver points out). So why is everyone talking about it now?
Primarily because branded content is working; it’s shown considerably higher levels of engagement than standard digital ad formats, a welcome departure from the industry ailment of “banner blindness.” Publishers are innovating in content delivery while seeking new revenue channels, and advertisers are seeing strong performance. The idea of “native” has become paramount because it’s a win-win for publishers and advertisers.
Most importantly, however, these ads can actually be seen as a value-add for the reader, instead of an accepted nuisance: they can serve real, robust content that is relevant to our demonstrated interests. The Washington Post is one of many publishers honing the targeting capabilities of their native product to ensure relevance, which is a move in the right direction. And the ability to use a variety of storytelling methods, in addition to the placement of your organization’s story and point of view within a respected online or traditional publication (while respecting some of our do’s and don’ts below) are enhancing the value of native placements over earlier forms of digital advertising overall.
That said, there is a line. Editorial and advertising have long been respected divisions within media companies, and it’s on publishers to maintain the distinction between ‘church and state’ for their audience. And as readers, it’s incumbent upon us to pay attention. If something is marked as ‘paid post’ or ‘sponsored,’ understand that it’s a form of advertising and not the publication’s reporting or editorial.
Your organization will likely partner with a media company or agency to help execute this type of advertising, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you determine your strategy, creative, and goals for native content.
- Do: Ensure an authentic fit within the advertiser’s brand, the publisher, and the content itself. This example from Ultraviolet and Upworthy is a case of sponsored content done well. Ultraviolet’s story is a natural fit with Upworthy’s content stream of “things that matter.” This is something you would expect to see on Upworthy, whether or not Ultraviolet paid for it. Additionally, Upworthy gets the disclosure right. Full transparency about the terms of the post and their process at the top explains the format and reassures the reader. In fact, we see a lot of opportunity around taking this idea even further, combining inspiring content with frictionless tools that enable people to take immediate action from an article. Read more in a piece we wrote over at Digiday about this new breed of “native advocacy.”
- Do: Incorporate video where possible and relevant. This playful piece from Purina and BuzzFeed breaks through with a great concept, superb copywriting, and clever execution.The cat’s narration feels organic and welcome, unlike most ads today. We could watch this all day (and nearly did).
- Do: Add value to your audience’s real-world experiences. Native advertising has even extended to the realm of large-scale productions such as films or entire magazines, as seen with Marriott’s new digital travel magazine. Like it or not, the content hub is actually super useful. I recently had the serendipitous pleasure of vacationing in New Orleans, the destination highlighted by Marriott’s first issue, and I found myself using the site even more than established travel tools like TripAdvisor. In a similar vein, Google is partnering with The New York Times, and by integrating their Maps tools into the publisher’s ‘36 Hours’ travel series, they greatly enrich the destination research experience.
- Don’t: Execute branded content simply to get in front of a larger audience. As seen in one of the most infamous recent examples of branded content, the Church of Scientology and The Atlantic did not get it right. Although both brands suffered from being the “guinea pig” for an innovative ad format that had yet to win over the public, the execution was doomed from the start, as it simply lacked authenticity. The Church should have found a more relevant publisher that had a more receptive audience, and the Atlantic should have employed a more strict vetting process.
Branded content may not feel right for you and your organization’s goals, yet. But if you want to reach your audience in a new, contextual way, with more real estate and opportunity to inspire engagement than traditional ads, you might want to start exploring native content, or get in touch with us to talk about it.