Is native advertising the answer so many industries have been looking for?

With native advertising, the whole point is to seamlessly blend in.

With native advertising, the whole point is to seamlessly blend in.

At one time, valuable information—or content, as we now call it—was sold. Households subscribed to print magazines and newspapers. People, like my grandfather, spent a lifetime building a personal library of classic literature and music (some of which still holds a proud place in my home). From the 1950s to the 1970s, millions of parents invested in pricey encyclopedia sets for their children.

That all seems so quaint now.

In these hurried times, our lives are drenched, even submerged, in content from every direction—the vast majority of it free. We’re soaked down to our undies in videos, blogs, white papers, articles, infographics, TED talks, websites, online surveys, games, social media and way, way more. Yeah, there’s a lot of junk out there, but most of us have our favorite and trusted content hubs, too, so we know where the good stuff is.

The worlds of marketing, media and publishing, in the perpetually anguished attempt to evolve at warp speed, are turning more and more to content marketing and native advertising. It makes sense, given the meteoric rise of ad blocker software and the smaller-than-a-flea-and-just-as-annoying response rates of banner ads.

Native advertising is particularly hot as of late. For those of you who are a little fuzzy on what that is (believe me, I get it), here’s how I think of it.

Native advertising is like camouflage. It’s paid media… it’s often excellent content… it’s sponsored by a brand or company… but it blends in perfectly with its surroundings. So, if you’re on the New York Times site, for example, the native content looks eerily like everything else on that page.

Nearly every publisher or media site—to maintain some crumbs of integrity with their readers—will point out their native advertisers in some way. Next to the headline will be the infamous, “sponsored” or “promoted” line. Or the word “paid” will be in the URL when you click through. Here’s an example I snapped from my Twitter feed (it appeared between other tweets I follow):

Twitter sample

See the little “promoted” at the bottom? There you go.

Does native work? A quick look at stats online suggest that it really does…

  • More than 60% of media companies and publishers offer native advertising
  • Brands often create their own content for native advertising, but an increasing number of publishers and media sites offer this service to brands, too—another nice revenue stream for them
  • Some of the most popular techniques in native advertising are sponsored articles and blogs
  • Marketers are now dropping about a third of their budgets on content marketing and native advertising—and that’s growing

That last bullet reminds me. I’ve seen a lot of experts flipping out online about the terms “content” vs. “native.” Content, the current wisdom goes, is generally created and distributed by a brand itself—via email, its own website, YouTube channel, downloads, etc.

Native advertising, conversely, is when a brand’s content is placed on someone else’s site, and that space is paid for, like an ad. But unlike an ad, the content doesn’t carry any of brand’s attributes—it doesn’t look like an advertisement. It looks like the site on which it appears (a la camouflage).

Here’s a very interesting article by Harvard Business Review, comparing the ROI of content marketing vs. native advertising. It’s worth a read.

Every major media and publishing site has some kind of native ad program—including Facebook, The Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and so many others.

In theory, native advertising seems to be an ideal solution. When done well (operative word), native advertising pleases many gods that, up until pretty recently, was nearly impossible. Marketers get the targeted eyeballs they yearn for. Publishers and media companies can finally make some cash, without alienating the very people they need to survive. And consumers get content that actually means something to them. Right?

Hard to say. Many credit native advertising with saving journalism and media. Others claim is tough to know if native actually produces any sales for brands. Still others lament the ever-blurring line between “sponsored” content and “real” news. I wonder: Will publishers, media companies and advertisers eventually overdo this, only to heighten consumers’ ability to sniff native advertising out and eventually kill it?

For now, I guess valuable information is still being sold. The model has changed, that’s all. Instead of the end user paying for it (like my grandfather did), brands and companies are, in exchange for what is perhaps the most coveted currency of all these days—someone’s attention.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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