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Home > Topics & Tools > Advertising > Ad Strategies > Native Advertising: What it is and what it isn't

Native Advertising: What it is and what it isn't

By Dorian Benkoil, Teeming Media

Native advertising is all the buzz, even if not everyone agrees what it is. It came up repeatedly at Advertising Week events last week in New York, and top-flight publishers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and, notably, Forbes, have experimented with the form. Other major publishers quietly are shopping their similar offerings around.

Meanwhile digital-first news organizations such as Buzzfeed, Gawker, Quartz and The Huffington Post consider native advertising a core sponsorship offering.

In this series, I will give my take on what native advertising is, and isn't, why it's here, and how to do it effectively, based on my company's work for multiple clients, as well as public and private discussions.

BuzzFeed Native Advertising
On its homepages, both Web (above) and mobile, Buzzfeed indicates sponsored content via an off-color background.

Native Advertising: Is

Native advertising is text, video, a listicle, slideshow, graphic or whatever other content that's produced on behalf of or by a sponsor who has paid for the privilege and appears within or alongside a publisher's own content offerings.

At its best, native advertising is sponsored content that:

Is engaging. It needs to interest the person consuming it, so they keep doing so, and ideally remember and refer to it later, even share it with others.

Fits seamlessly in the context of where it's appearing. People reading stories about personal technology are probably interested in personal technology. A sponsor bringing relevant, related content will be appreciated.

Looks right. Another part of fitting seamlessly is that the sponsor-produced content needs to meld well with the website, app, video portal, etc., on which it's appearing.

Is in stream. We could call this "fits seamlessly, from a technological perspective." A large part of the reason for native advertising is because a large amount of content today is consumed on mobile devices – typically 20-25 percent for a traditional news outlet, 50 percent for Buzzfeed, executives there say. Those devices have small screens that show content in a last-in, first-out flow without sidebars, pop-outs, and other distractions that are the norm on computer-accessed web pages. Sometimes, the only way for the content to be seen by many users is for it to be in the stream -- in the RSS, JSON and other feeds – you are sending out to mobile pages, apps, syndicators and others.

Is clearly labeled. Your community deserves to know who's responsible for the content they're consuming. Sponsored content clearly indicates that it's not directly from the editorial team. Some publishers offset their native advertising with an off-color background, by labeling on the story, or by using a different font face.

Many publishers make native advertising more clear on their home pages and section fronts than on the article page, itself – where there may simply be a headline that notes the content is from a "sponsor" or "partner." In an era where the majority of traffic can come directly to a page through search and social referrals, we can argue whether on-page native advertising is well enough labeled. More on that later.

Is sharable. You've enabled content sharing from editorial areas in the hopes that your community will use social sharing tools that entice others to view it, right? Sponsored content needs to be sharable as well. The sponsor will expect that their content can go viral, thus giving them tremendously more advertising reach.

May use the same technology as editorial. Some publishers pride themselves on letting sponsor-driven content be produced via the same back-end the editorial team uses – the same content management system, host, servers, URL structure, SEO and even archiving. Others choose to segment sponsored content into its own areas, and may not archive it indefinitely.

Is deft. Who's going to consume, or share, something that's poorly written or produced? The best delivers value to the people consuming it. Maybe you make them laugh, or think, or want to know more. There's a nuance, a touch, that the best producers have. Not everyone can do it. Everyone should try.

Is timely. This may mean the content is produced in close to real-time, and therefore has a news hook. (The much-heralded Oreo ad tweeted during the Super Bowl blackout is sometimes held up as a paramount of real-time advertising done natively to Twitter. It also is said to have taken 18 months to produce.) This is another way the content fits seamlessly, as in the bullet above.

Does well for the marketer. One genius of native advertising is a fake journalist. Stephen Colbert – whether joking about tortilla chips or producing a hilarious Daft Punk parody that went viral, all on behalf of sponsors who were transparently mentioned – weaves the content into his show in ways that get a lot of attention while hewing to his own show's comedic principles.

Native Advertising: Isn't

The best native advertising:

Isn't jarringly off-kilter. Have you ever been shaken from deep immersion in something you're reading or watching by a screaming ad about something unrelated? Behavioral targeting technology might serve you a car ad on a shoe website because you just visited a car blog, but you might be more enticed – and less crept out – by some fashion friendly content that goes well with your interest in shoes. Some ads built into older episodes of the television show Bones for a carmaker sometimes make the dialog seem absurd and distract from the show. That's native advertising, but it's disruptive to the show and ultimately hurts both brands.

Isn't overly annoying. OK, maybe you'll buy something from someone yelling at you. But you won't like them, and aren't likely to ask for more. Native advertising is about establishing a relationship – a conversation, within conversational media – more than it is about the hard sell.

Isn't deceptive or dishonest. People will probably find out, expose you, and make you pay.

Isn't boring. While a managing producer at ABCNews.com, I once granted two colleagues their assertion that accuracy is paramount in journalism. But I held that another cardinal sin was to bore, that if a story was worth presenting, a good journalist could present it in an engaging way. So, too, for native advertising. Bore people, and you've lost them.

Isn't an advertorial. A number of people have likened native advertising to advertorials. Sure, it can be marketer-created content that at its worst is as tedious as any Sunday supplement extolling the touristic delights of some formerly communist republic. But because it's put out via the same in-stream feeds as editorial content and accessed in the same way via search and social sharing, it is a new type of marketing. Unfortunately, some marketers have trouble relaxing enough to get away from marketing-speak, and talking in a genuine way. Convincing them can require a look at traffic numbers that digital can provide. "Data is produced that if you continue to just be promotional and self-centered, your engagement rate ... is very poor," Jared Belsky, executive vice president of ad agency 360i, said when I asked how to get approval for more conversational, real-world language.

Isn't overly self-referential. Talk about yourself too much and, as with any conversation, people will turn off or turn away. Talk about something that's interesting and fun, and someone might be more open to hearing a bit more about you, maybe even what you have to sell. "It's Samsung sponsoring a piece on five apps for dads on Father's Day rather than something on how great the Samsung Galaxy 4 is," said Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer of the popular tech site Mashable.

Isn't easy. Great writers and producers earn good money because they are able to produce content that informs, amuses and even delights people. Not everyone can do that, though most people can get better.

Go to part II, Native Advertising: The how and why 4

Dorian BenkoilDorian Benkoil is a digital media management consultant and entrepreneur, founder of Teeming Media and The MediaThon. A former reporter and foreign correspondent for Newsweek and The Associated Press, he was founding international then managing producer at ABCNews.com. A Fulbright fellow and MBA (with honors), he also teaches the digital media management course he created to graduate students in CUNY's Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College.

Twitter @dbenk

First Published: October 09, 2013