The term native advertising is bandied about like nobody’s business at the moment, to define the good, the bad and the ugly across the spectrum of advertising. But what does it truly mean?
First of all, why not start with everyones favourite guilty-pleasure – Wikipedia. It states that:
“Native advertising is a web advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the users experience.”
Thanks Wikipedia. But to make sure we’re on the right track, I headed for our most trusted source for all things Google. To be specific, the search engine’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts. In his video Advertorials, he states that native advertising is advertising. Shocker!
“but its often the sort of advertising that looks a little closer to editorial.”
He stresses that money is the impetus behind this content: the site hasnt written about the topic because they considered it interesting, or because they particularly wanted to. Ouch!
So, a cautious approach is advised by Cutts. In fact, he suggests having “an abundance of caution with native advertising, making it completely clear what is paid for, and what isn’t.”
So, native advertising is content which is indiscernible to the user from the editorial content presented by the media outlet itself. This similarity to real content is what makes it both problematic and appealing. But more of that later. The waters remain murky when differentiating between native advertising, advertorial and content marketing. Though the three certainly don’t fit neatly into nice square cyber-boxes, we should try to define their differences:
Advertorial is the most obvious type of sponsored content. It is the classic double-spread in your favourite magazine, where a lady previously deemed drab gets a sprightly overhaul with the help of a perky stylist. That one. The one that you realise is sponsored by Max-Factor, or Tresemme, half way down (other styling products are available). It is a clearly paid for, sponsored post.
Content marketing is content created by an advertiser, or by a publication, which is designed to fit their editorial style, eg. in the format of a guest post. This content should be valuable to the readership or audience, but is also vaguely associated with specific products or with services offered by the brand or company behind the content.
Native advertising should be a clear one by now – the main difference from the two methods above is that it is indiscernible from the editorial content presented by the outlet themselves. The advert is built into the actual site, and its visual design – the ads are part and parcel of the content. It is often even written by the publications staff. The balance between creating content which is paid for, but fitting it into the style of the outlet, is a tricky thing to get right.
Here is an example of Facebooks foray into the world of native marketing – posts on your feed that seem to have appeared from nowhere. You dont follow the site, you have never even heard of them before, in fact – yet there they are, integrated into your page, as if they are personal news feeds for you.
There are plenty of pros of native advertising for the user, and not all of them are simply due to its novelty. One of the main things working in favour of native advertising is the way it can provide an augmented user experience. Surely this factor alone should be able to bring Cutts round?
Whilst banner ads are often intrusive and irritating, sometimes even obscuring content, native advertising is integrated into the look and feel of the site as a whole, giving an uninterrupted user experience.
Pro number two relates to the people behind native advertising. Solve Media figures show that 70% of agency creatives recognise the importance of premium content in a native advertising environment. This is the factor that could truly ruin the value of native advertising if not done right, so its good that the industry seems to recognise the value that should be put into creating professional, optimal content.
And so, to the final pro on the list – continuous engagement. The whole point of native advertising is that it is advertisement tailored to the specific content desires of the user, and thus, no more entirely irrelevant and highly irritating pop-ups. Make way for advertising that you read because youre interested, not because its deceptive, or because its an ad. Native doesnt need to impersonate content – it needs to be optimised content, a call to action of content. The goal isnt to conceal the advert within the content; its to make the offer so relevant and appealing to the user that it is irresistible. The reader opts in to this content through their interests, so native advertising can be highly attuned to user needs.
Howard Luck Gossage, Advertising Pioneer, 1969:
“Nobody reads advertising. People read what they want to read, and sometimes its an ad.”
Con number one. Native advertising, done badly, is slightly more covert, poor advertorial. Have you ever been reading a magazine, and got halfway down a page, waiting for the trusty mag you always enjoy to kick in with good content, only to discover you’re mid-advertorial? This has to be one of the most irritating factors about integrated content. Standards have to be kept, or readers will be driven away from native advertising formats as if pursued by hungry wolves.
As explained above, poor content can never hide, and the user is only going to be more angry if they have read half a page, thinking they are still reading editorial content, to find themselves in the middle of a dull-as-dishwater piece of advertising. Native advertising is still an ad. And we should all know, by now, that ads are no good whatsoever without great content.
Thirdly, there is the inherent ambiguity of the new. Cutts suggests that all content which aims to build links should engage no-follow links, but that a natural link is fine – defining that process is going to be difficult. Skilful SEO content engineers the natural, exposing more relevant people to the material you most want them to see, and providing the link you want them to click on – but I would still consider this process natural. There is no way that we can all keep abreast of the content on the internet that interests us – so why not put that content in front of the right people? It is just engineering the natural.
And we’ve come to our final con of native advertising – its novelty. Native advertising may well become less effective over time. On the other hand, if its novelty doesn’t wear off and it begins to replace paid ads all over our screens, it will be a real competitor to Google, and compromise Googles traditional way of making money. Though we would never accuse Google of being owt but righteous, this might be enough to really make their regulations of the firmest and most stringent variety when it comes to native advertising. But Google is aware of the imminent threat of native advertising. On a slightly different tangent, they have bought the rights to Pay-Per-Gaze technology, although express no interest in putting it into action. And what is PPG but the ultimate native advertising, contextualising adverts into the users whole worldview?
Google cannot really turn against native advertising, as long as it benefits the user. Abiding by its own ten commandments, number one remains focus on the user and all else will follow. So if we follow this guidance, and create great, user-oriented content, we should all be safe and practising the best techniques for the foreseeable future.