Why Advertisers Need to Think Native

Native advertising is the latest buzzword. Even venerable publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes, are trying it out. Is the trend bound to fade, or is it here to stay? Despite some shoddy applications, it’s here to stay.

Native advertising is the latest buzzword. Even venerable publishers such as The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes, are trying it out. Is the trend bound to fade, or is it here to stay? Despite some shoddy applications, it’s here to stay.

Although the term “native advertising” was coined by the venture capitalist Fred Wilson just under two years ago, the concept is neither new nor unprecedented. It covers any advertising format that is customized to the user experience of a given platform. Or, in the words of Gini Dietrich, native advertising “integrates high-quality content into the organic experience of a given platform.” A 30-second ad during the Super Bowl? Native. Sponsored stories in Facebook? Native. Paid results on Google? Native. The brilliant humor pieces produced by the Onion that overtly pitch products? Native.

All of these advertising formats work within the existing user experience of a medium to deliver messaging that enhances the experience, or at the least does not interrupt the flow of it. Where it goes wrong is when it interrupts or detracts from the user-experience in fundamental ways.

Take the controversy over the The Atlantic‘s favorable article on scientology, which was paid for by Scientology in response to another more negative story. Readers of the magazine had a hard time distinguishing that this was, in fact, bought. The tone and the format mimicked standard Atlantic articles. By eliding the distinction between paid and editorial content, Atlantic was undermining its reputation for objectivity. Users come to the Atlantic for powerful, independent thinking on society and current affairs. An ad that mimics the form of an independent piece of writing on an important cultural topic detracts from its reputation for independence. Andrew Sullivan goes even further:

“This is corporate propaganda, not journalism. Yes, it is identified as such—but on the video page, actual journalism by brilliant writers like Alexis Madrigal is interspersed with corporate-funded propaganda. You can easily mistake one for the other.”

Not all publishers need to be as careful about creating clear divisions between their editorial content and their sponsored content. Aggregators and news repackagers, such as BuzzFeed or the Huffington Post, are already taking information from a variety of sources. But even they need to ensure the quality of the content and the clarity of tags that show the content as sponsored. People don’t mind paid content if it provides useful information or entertainment value—or if the paid content resides in a context where all of the content is highly opinionated. SayMedia has thrived in this niche by providing content with strong positions on trends, tech and society. Including paid content fits right in.

The real potential for native advertising, however, is where it actually enhances the user experience in new media formats. The Onion has proudly embraced its cynicism, best stated in a column by its advertising columnist Hammond Morris, “Look, I know this may all seem somewhat untoward, and we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column—nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism—exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads.”

It’s not just that it’s completely self-aware, it produces advertising that’s genuinely funny. The Onion has gone as far as setting up its own in-house creative group called Onlon Labs with the goal of creating funny, self-aware advertising completely in-line with the rest of the Onion‘s content.

The New York Times last week introduced a native advertising format that likewise provide useful information for its readers. The content appears as a tab in The Scoop, the Times‘ activities discovery app, and it provides information about the Citibank-promoted bikeshare program. According to the press release: “This is just one example of how we are working more closely with our advertisers to create unique and custom campaigns to help them tell their brand story in innovative ways,” said Denise Warren, executive vice president, Digital Products and Services Group, The New York Times. “The integration of Citi Bike’s robust content complements The Scoop app’s main objective—to serve as a guide to New York City. With these new features, we hope to further enhance the experience for users of The Scoop as they explore the city using their iPhone.”

Whether or not the tab gains widespread usage is an open question. But the Times did its homework. It knows how people use its media properties. It knows the information that would be useful to its users. And it knows what will compromise its underlying credibility. With that knowledge, it created a new advertising product. That’s how advertisers need to think.

The key takeaway for advertisers is you need to know how a user interacts with the medium—and that new media might have native advertising formats that completely differ from existing formats. Advertorials and space ads might make sense in a lot of contexts, but even more effective formats might open up if you just think about what actually enhances the user’s experience. That’s the promise of native.