Native advertising, as with most of the buzzwords we hear and say everyday, everywhere, is a concept that is defined in so many different ways it’s just confusing. The “official” definition implies that every ad that fits naturally and feels like other types of content in the page fits perfectly into this category. The definition of the word “naturally” is very subjective, though. It’s as simple as this: the same ad in the same placement could feel more natural to some users than others.
The Many Meanings of Native Advertising
The definition is so broad that it includes things like sponsored posts on Facebook or promoted posts on Twitter. The playbook created by IAB even mentions the inline ads you find between two paragraphs of an article you’re trying to read on your phone and it covers those recommendation widgets that are confusing to some users and just disappointing to others. It goes as far as to include paid search units.
I wouldn’t say those ads I’ve run into while scrolling through my timeline feel natural —although Facebook is doing a better job than Twitter at that. I can say I don’t trust those external articles you find contained in recommendation widgets at the end of an article you just read in ESPN —I trust ESPN as a content creator, however those “sponsored articles” are not being selected by ESPN but by the third-party that created the widget (Outbrain, Taboola, Earnify, etc). In the same way, most of the times when searching something on Google, I instinctively tend to prefer links that appear organically and ignore those that are clearly paid and promoted.
How Is This Better Than Standard Banner Ads?
One thing you can say about the examples I mentioned above is that all those ads are displayed based on a certain context. Granted, that context can be more or less accurate depending on the kind of data it is built upon. But searching for “Cartagena Hotels” on Google, for example, shows me paid search results related with Cartagena, Colombia and not Cartagena, Spain. Google seems to figure out the context based on the search term and my location and then displays paid search results based on that, which is very smart. Recommendation widgets define the context by assuming you are interested in the topic you were reading about and then display article recommendations (from other publishers) related with that topic. I’m not going to go case by case, but one starts to see there is a common element in all these different ad solutions.
The common element is context. They try to address the consumer more accurately by using the data they have at hand, so you could definitely say they are getting smarter. The problem is that while they are smarter, they are still not adding much more value to the consumer’s experience. They are just being a better informed door to door salesman. Almost equally annoying.
Adding Meaning to Context
Context alone is cool and it does increase the chances of getting to the right audiences in the right moments. However, the concept of native advertising covers other approaches that are pushing to make native ads more meaningful and valuable.
Buzzfeed’s revenue model is based almost entirely on sponsored articles. Ranging from 15 Of The Best Bands To Come From College Campuses (sponsored by Spotify) to the much less subtle 12 Ways Nutella® Makes You Smile (sponsored by Nutella), BuzzFeed has created what would be the perfect win-win scenario. Readers getting content that is entertaining and brands capitalizing by raising awareness and sponsoring content that is aligned with their attributes. However, the area of the layout of the article that says that this is a sponsored article is so small and subtle, a large group of users don’t see it and content passes as regular content, not as sponsored content, which gives room to all types of concerns.
Adding Extra Value Through Custom Native Ads
Referring back to IAB and their Native Advertising Playbook, “In the world of native advertising execution, there is no limit to the possibilities when an advertiser and publisher work together on custom units”. That’s probably the most valuable bit of the entire document and makes one thing clear: key to success here is in collaboration. Advertisers and their agencies can (and should) be as creative as they want. Publishers are always open to trying new stuff as long as it is well paid. They kind of need to be open, to be honest. Custom native ads are probably the most expensive of the group, but they’re definitely the most impactful.
An example of this is the partnership between Netflix and The New York Times. The newspaper produced an in-depth piece on the conditions women face in American prisons and Netflix sponsored it by connecting the topic of the article with the theme of their series “Orange is the New Black”. The beauty of it is it doesn’t feel like a regular article of the newspaper’. The design was 100% custom and incorporated exclusive illustrations, in addition to the quality of the text content produced by the newspaper. The strategy was not to appear as a regular article and confuse. It was to reinforce the presence of the product by attaching to a special article on a related topic.
Custom content also means each case is different. This makes things more exciting for everyone involved: brand, publisher and agency. We personally had a lot of fun helping Rolling Stone and Wenner Media in their process of adding custom sponsored content to the products they offer to their super cool clients. In the case of Indian Motorcycles, the tie between motorcycles and rock music was reinforced by a custom article that was a highly visual list of the 40 most groundbreaking albums of all time. All the content was created by RS, and the brand appeared inserted into the story in the most organic way possible. The brand did fit very naturally in the story and both the design and the content of the article where in line with the magazine’s expected quality.
Especially when it comes to sponsored content, ethics are a big deal here and the more honest the brand messages feel and the less the publisher’s principles get compromised, the better for everyone, in the end. Publishers need to establish rules and filters and take care of their reputation. When it comes to deciding how far publishers can go for any given brand, there has to be a line that each publisher will have to draw according to their ethical values.