Ed­i­to­rial Or Na­tive Ad­ver­tis­ing: The Key To Suc­cess Is To Be Reader-Cen­tric

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Cited as “one of the hottest and most con­tro­ver­sial trends in the in­dus­try” by the US As­so­ci­a­tion of Na­tional Ad­ver­tis­ers (ANA), na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing is of­ten be­ing viewed by pub­lish­ers and mar­keters to­day as the new sav­ior of dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing and by oth­ers as a devil in sheep’s cloth­ing.

SO WHAT IS NA­TIVE AD­VER­TIS­ING RE­ALLY?

Def­i­ni­tions of what it is and what it isn’t spread far and wide across the web as as­so­ci­a­tions, ven­dors, pub­lish­ers, mar­keters and the me­dia at­tempt to wrap their heads around this shiny new rev­enue stream.

The In­ter­na­tional Ad­ver­tis­ing Bu­reau (IAB) de­fines na­tive ads as “paid ad­ver­tise­ments that are so co­he­sive with the page con­tent, as­sim­i­lated into the design, and con­sis­tent with the plat­form be­hav­ior that the viewer sim­ply feels that they be­long.”

Sharethrough (a mem­ber of the IAB Na­tive Ad­ver­tis­ing Task Force), calls “a form of paid me­dia where the ad ex­pe­ri­ence fol­lows the nat­u­ral form and func­tion of the user ex­pe­ri­ence in which it is placed”.

Why a pro­mo­tional prac­tice that has been around for over a cen­tury needs a new def­i­ni­tion, I don’t get. There’s re­ally noth­ing new about na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, other than its name coined in 2011. Na­tive ads have been served across all forms of medium for decades; we just called them ad­ver­to­ri­als.

Check out this 1914 Cadil­lac-spon­sored “na­tive ad” in The Satur­day Evening Post. Now take a look at an In­tuit na­tive ad on Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Ex­cept for the lay­out and use of graph­ics, there’s not much dif­fer­ence be­tween the past and the present when it comes to spon­sored con­tent.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why is there so much hype about some­thing we’ve had in our ad­ver­tis­ing arse­nal since long be­fore the dawn of dig­i­tal?

Few would ar­gue that ban­ner blind­ness is an elec­tronic epi­demic for which there is no cure.

But are na­tive ads dig­i­tal me­dia’s last hope to re­cap­ture the eye­balls, trust and loy­alty of con­sumers they’ve been abus­ing for years with poor qual­ity, in­va­sive and overly com­modi­tized ban­ner, in­ter­sti­tial and in­stream pro­mo­tions? Maybe…

HOPE SPRINGS ETER­NAL

Na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing spend­ing is soar­ing based on data from mul­ti­ple sources that show their su­pe­rior per­for­mance over tra­di­tional dis­play, par­tic­u­larly on mo­bile.

Ac­cord­ing to Cel­tra re­search, na­tive ad for­mats are by far the best per­form­ers among all rich me­dia ads. En­gage­ment rates at 18%, are more than twice that of stan­dard ads. And users spend 40% more time in­ter­act­ing with na­tive ads than they do with stan­dard ones.

With higher en­gage­ment and click-through rates, this “new” rev­enue source is be­ing her­alded as a mas­sive op­por­tu­nity for pub­lish­ers and mar­keters alike. So it’s no sur­prise that most pub­lish­ers have al­ready jumped on the $US 21 bil­lion band­wagon.

Na­tive has also been a driver be­hind the ex­pan­sion of many pub­lish­ers’ ad­ver­tis­ing of­fer­ings to in­clude the pro­duc­tion of spon­sored ads, al­low­ing brands to tap into the pub­lisher’s ed­i­to­rial team’s ex­per­tise. Here are just a few…

Lu­cra­tive deals are be­ing struck with brands on a reg­u­lar ba­sis by some top-tier pub­lish­ers de­mand­ing high min­i­mums to pro­duce na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing.

THE ELE­PHANT IN THE ROOM

But the move to of­fer na­tive ad ser­vices to brands comes with both a sil­ver lin­ing and its prover­bial cloud.

Ear­lier this year, Con­tently sur­veyed 509 male and fe­male con­sumers over the age of 18 to de­ter­mine how they in­ter­pret na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing on pub­lisher web­sites in­clud­ing Forbes, The At­lantic, The Onion and For­tune, to name a few.

Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group (BCG) also sur­veyed 4,500 peo­ple across mul­ti­ple age groups in the US, UK, Ger­many and Italy to de­ter­mine how they per­ceived branded con­tent.

But it’s not just con­sumers who are wag­ging their fin­gers at pub­lish­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers they be­lieve are prac­tic­ing to de­ceive them. From John Oliver’s in­fa­mous flame­out on HBO to strike threats at The Globe and Mail, the purists of tra­di­tional pub­lish­ing aren’t jump­ing for joy over the trend to go na­tive. They seem to be­lieve that contributing through their ed­i­to­rial and jour­nal­is­tic tal­ents to give read­ers a bet­ter read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is some­how a threat to their in­tegrity and the me­dia brands to which they serve.

Is that hubris or is it pro­tec­tion­ism or is it a valid con­cern over the blur­ring of lines be­tween jour­nal­ism and mar­ket­ing? I don’t have the an­swer to that, but there’s got to be a rea­son why big brands have been able to lure highly rep­utable jour­nal­ists away from news­rooms into con­tent mar­ket­ing and PR. Brands and mar­ket­ing agen­cies want qual­ity ad­ver­to­rial con­tent and they value jour­nal­ists’ tal­ents to de­liver it, un­like many tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers that treat news men and women as dis­pos­able com­modi­ties.

Re­gard­less of the push­back, how­ever, there is lit­tle doubt that this new gravy train has left the sta­tion – na­tive is here to stay. Let’s just hope that the per­ils of the past, don’t pre­dict a par­al­lel fu­ture. Let’s not mess this up again!

ABUSE, YOU LOSE!

Ac­cord­ing to re­cent re­search by the UK As­so­ci­a­tion of On­line Pub­lish­ers (AOP), 33% of con­sumers are more likely to trust na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing than tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing. It also found that click­ing on a na­tive ad on a pre­mium con­tent web­site (like your mag­a­zine) has greater im­pact than click­ing on a na­tive ad on Face­book. Sounds promis­ing.

But can na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing save the in­dus­try from the spread of what some pub­lish­ers and mar­keters be­lieve are dig­i­tal high­way rob­bers – the ad block­ers? Maybe. But only if con­sumers are kept at the cen­tre of a pub­lisher’s na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing strat­egy.

Con­tinue the prac­tice of “serv­ing” na­tive ads like ban­ner ads are done to­day, rather than “pub­lish­ing” them with the same care and cus­tomer-fo­cused at­ten­tion done with ed­i­to­rial con­tent and we’ll once again be vul­ner­a­ble to more than just ad-block­ing fire­walls; we’ll lose the trust of our most valu­able as­set – our au­di­ence.

NA­TIVE AND GLOSSY – A MATCH MADE IN AD­VER­TIS­ING HEAVEN

Ad­ver­tis­ing in most news­pa­pers has most read­ers snooz­ing as they’re pe­rus­ing the con­tent, but in the mag­a­zine world, glossy ads are as im­por­tant to many con­sumers as the ed­i­to­rial con­tent they sur­round.

Clas­si­fieds once en­joyed that same re­la­tion­ship with read­ers un­til pub­lish­ers ig­nored warn­ings as far back as 1992 when Bob Kaiser of The Wash­ing­ton Post wrote a memo to then owner, Don Gra­ham highly rec­om­mend­ing that the news­pa­per “design elec­tronic clas­si­fieds now… and seek to be­come the dom­i­nant provider of elec­tronic ad­ver­tis­ing and in­for­ma­tion in [the] re­gion.”

Well, we know how all that ended up.

But mag­a­zines still en­joy au­di­ence en­gage­ment through the “Vogue Ef­fect” of glossy ads. And if done right, mag­a­zine pub­lish­ers can cap­i­tal­ize on that re­la­tion­ship even fur­ther through well-crafted na­tive ads.

It’s al­ready been done for years in most fash­ion, life­style and tech­nol­ogy pub­li­ca­tions. Open al­most any of those mag­a­zines and you’re bound to run across a gift guide that is pure na­tive.

When you think “lis­ti­cle” Buz­zFeed prob­a­bly comes to mind, but mag­a­zines have been pub­lish­ing lists long be­fore Jonah Peretti was a twin­kle in his fa­ther’s eyes.

From long form ar­ti­cles in Forbes to prod­uct en­dorse­ments within Elle celebrity in­ter­views and ev­ery­where in be­tween, there are scores of dif­fer­ent ways mag­a­zines are us­ing na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing. But sadly some pub­lish­ers have fallen off the ten­u­ous na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing tightrope. This na­tive ad “ed­i­to­rial” didn’t last long on The At­lantic af­ter a back­lash from main­stream me­dia.

Other pub­lish­ers (e.g. Forbes, Bon Ap­pétit) have also been crit­i­cized for al­legedly cross­ing the blurry line be­tween jour­nal­ism and ad­ver­tis­ing by post­ing na­tive ads on their cover pages.

And it’s not just mag­a­zines that are be­ing lam­basted for ques­tion­able na­tive ad prac­tices. A num­ber of news­pa­pers have been slammed for mis­lead­ing read­ers with spon­sored con­tent pos­ing as hard-core news.

A SEC­OND CHANCE

The prom­ise of na­tive can’t be de­nied; its pros out­weigh its cons if done right. But one must be very care­ful not to re­peat the sins of the past.

To­day 20% of the con­tent on the Huff­in­g­ton Post is na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing, and it’s not stop­ping there. When does it be­come too much?

And what about the rush to pro­gram the place­ment of na­tive ads? Pro­gram­matic has value, but like all things that look too good to be true, isn’t it the first step to com­modi­tiz­ing na­tive to the point that it be­comes the next blocked ban­ner ad?

Poor ad qual­ity, lack of trans­parency and over-com­modi­ti­za­tion will be the death of na­tive ad­ver­tis­ing as ad block­ers be­come more so­phis­ti­cated in their abil­ity to de­tect and block na­tive ads.

It’s a slip­pery slope, but we’ve not bot­tomed out yet. There is still hope to build trust with read­ers if pub­lish­ers choose to only pub­lish na­tive ads that:

De­liver real value (e.g. high qual­ity, in­for­ma­tive, ed­u­ca­tional, en­ter­tain­ing, help­ful, etc.) Are con­tex­tu­ally-rel­e­vant within the sur­round­ing ed­i­to­rial con­tent Pro­vide full dis­clo­sure that the con­tent is spon­sored

You al­ready do that with the con­tent you pro­vide read­ers so just put your na­tive ads through the same ed­i­to­rial fil­ters and ask your­self, “Would this ad bring me, as a reader, value? Would I want to share this with oth­ers?” If the an­swers are both yes, then you’ve got your­self a win­ner.

You never get a sec­ond chance to make a great first im­pres­sion, but maybe, just maybe, with an au­di­ence-cen­tric na­tive ad strat­egy you just might get a sec­ond chance to cre­ate a great user ex­pe­ri­ence that keeps read­ers com­ing back for more.

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