Around this time of year, we start to see marketing trend predictions for the year ahead. One strategy that is bound to be in everyone’s list this year is native advertising.
While attending Content Marketing World earlier this month, I was able to connect with many leading marketers. While discussing the subject, I realized that there seems to be a fair amount of confusion around what native advertising really is and whether it is a good thing or something to avoid. Is it tricking readers into thinking they are reading regular editorial? Or, is it a way to tell better stories to make a more in-depth connection with your audience?
To learn more, I went straight to an expert. Melanie Deziel is one of the world’s leading experts on native advertising. As an Expert in Residence at BRaVe Ventures (an investor in Affinio), Melanie provides native advertising insights, training and information to their clients.
She is on a mission to educate as many people as possible about the power of brand storytelling. Melanie believes that quality native advertising helps advertisers provide value to their audience, creates vital new revenue streams for publishers, and opens opportunities for talented creators to make truly great work. You can learn more in her industry newsletter, The Overlap League.
The following interview has been lightly edited for ease of reading.
India: One thing that I’ve noticed when discussing native advertising with peers is that everyone seems to have varying definitions of what it is. There seems to be a lot of confusion between native advertising, branded content and sponsored content. What is, in your opinion, the true definition of native advertising?
Melanie: I think most broadly speaking, “native advertising” refers to any ad that is native to its environment. Most of the time when you’re talking about a publisher, what’s most native in their environment is content. That’s what readers are expecting and that’s what matches the quality of everything around it.
The reason that the definitions vary so much is that everyone is coming at it from a different context. If you work at Twitter, your idea of a native ad is a tweet as opposed to an article, which makes total sense because that’s what’s most natural to that environment. The same can be said for a Facebook post or any in-app post. Each person’s version of what is native to them and what’s native to their environment is a little bit different, and that makes it a harder for us to have the same conversation or to be on the same page when we are having these conversations; everyone’s context is so different.
I don’t think that there is necessarily a solution or a unified definition of what falls into the category of branded content, versus sponsored, versus co-branded, versus native… A lot of these terms are used interchangeably. It’s important whenever you are having these conversations that it’s clear what native advertising means to you and for your context to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
India: Do you think that the term, definition, or use case can change by platform? If a piece of content appeared on an entertainment publication versus, say, the New York Times?
Melanie: I don’t think the environment determines whether something counts as native or branded or sponsored, but I think what’s native to each environment does change, if that makes sense. Some people say that if the content is heavily branded, that is in a different category, and that might be true… if that’s true for your publication. If you think about reading the editorial in a lot of lifestyle magazines, like Cosmo or InStyle, a lot of them recommend products completely editorially, saying you should use this makeup, or try this fragrance, or this is how you style this dress five different ways. They are focusing on products. In those environments, having a heavily branded message is not out of place.
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India: Some people are of the opinion that native advertising is bad while Sponsored Content is good. That Sponsored Content is meant to provide value for the reader while native advertising can trick the reader into thinking they were reading editorial. What are your thoughts on this?
Melanie: As far as tricking readers, I don’t think of it that way. If a reader is tricked, and they don’t know that it was sponsored content, no one is winning there. The reader is certainly not winning; the advertiser is definitely not winning because they haven’t gotten anything out of the experience that they paid to create and promote, and the publisher is not winning because they are potentially losing the trust of a reader. I think when it is done correctly, no one should feel tricked.
The goal should always be that the reader is pleasantly surprised when they find out—that they are surprised and impressed that this brand is able to bring this type of value. If you focus on the value and focus on the storytelling, it shouldn’t feel like you’ve been tricked.
India: What do you say to people who are against native advertising? Is it an education thing or is there a debate to be had of whether it’s a good approach moving forward?
Melanie: In the early days I ran into people on the editorial side who were saying I was selling out. I’ve certainly met a lot of people who are very traditional journalists who see moving to the branded side as going to the ‘other side’ or selling out. It depends on their reasoning for objecting. There are certainly a lot of things to be concerned about, a lot of valid concerns that need to be voiced and accounted for. I like when I can have those conversations and hopefully help people understand and help them make an informed decision about whether or not they agree with native advertising.
The reality is that this type of content is going to be created either way and we have two choices. We can allow brands to do it and hope that they learn to do it well without any outside influence or education. Or, we can have people like me who come from journalism involved, who understand storytelling, who care very deeply about the sourcing and the quality and the type of writing and content to help guide the process.
India: How do you execute native advertising well? What advice can you give to any advertisers or storytellers out there who are currently, or thinking about, executing a native advertising campaign?
Melanie: The thing that I always say—it’s a little bit trite—but there’s really no such thing as “good content.” There’s only content that’s either in context or out of context. What’s good on Buzzfeed is not the same as what’s good in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated or The Economist. Everyone has their context that needs to be accounted for when you create that content.
What I recommend most often is to take a look at what is working on the editorial side. What are the formats that your audience likes? What are the topics that they tend to engage with? What are the styles and tones and voices that resonate most clearly with your audience? And then try, as best you can, to keep that consistent with what you are doing on the Native side. That is going to create content that is most in-context and most well-matched to what you are doing editorially, and it keeps the quality bar at the same height.
You can run into issues if the content doesn’t match the context. Imagine a world where we are creating “gif listicles” that work so well on BuzzFeed, that are socially optimized with tons of engagement; then you put it on the New York Times. It would be horrible! The exact same top performing content, for each perspective publisher, if you switch the place where it lives, would likely totally bomb performance-wise or create a lot of negative press.
India: What would you say is the best example, whether you’ve worked on it or not, of a very well executed native advertising campaign?
Melanie: I think the one that people ask me about the most is a piece that I did when I was at the New York Times in partnership with Netflix for Orange is the New Black: “Women Inmates.” That piece for us was a great example of what I was just talking about; we looked at what worked for the New York Times. It had to be well sourced. It had to be well-designed. It had to have multimedia. We couldn’t just throw out one video or one photo and hope that it performed well. We had to try to bring in as many elements as possible to give the reader options for how they want to engage.
We tried our best to use that model when we created the piece. It was our first time having the resources and time to create something that in-depth that included a lot of multimedia, that was well-sourced and had interviews with really credible sources. For us, that was a big deal because we were able to show that when we modeled what we were doing on the native side with what our newsroom was doing so incredibly well, we were able to see the same level of performance.
That piece was among the top 2% of all content published on the New York Times in 2014. It saw performance that was on par or exceeding some of the editorial content because we worked so hard to maintain the same standards and the same best practices. I’ve also seen a lot of really great work come from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Atlantic. They are doing a very similar sort of in-depth content that mirrors what works on their editorial side.
India: When it comes to native advertising, how do relationships between publishers and advertisers come to be? Are publications going out and finding brands or is it brands going to publications? How are these partnerships made?
Melanie: The way that they are made echoes the way other advertising relationships are made across the publishing industry. The agency that represents the brand will send out what’s called an RFP, or Request for Proposal that gives an outline: “this is what we want to accomplish and this is how much money we have and this is how we’ll measure success.” They ask what we recommend for advertising they should run, and why they should choose you.
In the early days of native, we started responding to RFPs, which you would have typically responded with “we have these banner ad placements, and we have these sponsorships,” with custom content as well. And over time that process has evolved to the point where many of these requests for proposals now explicitly say “we are interested in hearing what you can do with custom content.” Typically the brand is reaching out to a number of publishers, anywhere from 5-50, and saying “we are somewhat interested in working with you, here’s what we want to do, what do you think?” You make your pitch and hope that you can show that you are the best choice.
India: What does this look like from the publisher’s side? When you receive an RFP, and you’re going to pitch native advertising, how does the process look? How do you come up with the strategy and the ideas?
Melanie: This process varies slightly for every publisher. They all have their own cues and their own processes. Generally speaking, when you get an RFP, it typically comes in through the sales team. If they identify that there may be a content opportunity, they will pass it to the content team who assembles for a brainstorm. They might have a designer there and a developer, a video person, whatever happens to be the right “A team” for that opportunity. They talk about what the brand has the power to talk about, what they are trying to accomplish, who they think the ideal audience is for this, and how do all of those things overlap with the publication’s audience and the type of content that they already create.
India: When these partnerships are formed, are they typically one-offs? Or is more than one piece of content created on an ongoing basis? And in your opinion, what would you say is best as far as performance?
Melanie: I think it depends on the goals of the advertiser. I know that’s kind of a squishy answer, but if you are working with an advertiser that has a show premiering on a certain date, they might only be interested in having a big presence on that day or the day before, just to get attention.
When you are working on a bigger initiative where a brand wants to help educate consumers on their expertise or change a perception, it’s likely that there are multiple pieces. For example, you’re a finance advertiser; you feel like consumers don’t know enough about mortgages, and you want to help them understand. In that case, a one off may not be enough; you may want to do a 2-6 month-long program where content is rolling out in some cadence.
India: Recently I read a stat from Business Insider saying that by 2021, native advertising will comprise of 74% of all ad revenue, so obviously this is not going away. Why is native advertising so important today and moving into 2017?
Melanie: That stat, I imagine, probably also includes a lot of the social advertising that is considered to be part of native advertising. That’s a huge sector that is growing. I think that those numbers are big because they include the broadest definition of advertising. But I do think that Native Ads, with content specifically, are really important because they allow storytelling in a way that a standard banner ad just doesn’t allow for. There’s just not enough space and not enough attention there to really make an authentic connection with a consumer.
Part of the reason why advertisers are so attracted to native advertising is because it gives them a chance to have a longer interaction with the consumer. They are used to speed dating where they get one quick second to hopefully make an impression in a banner, but you have no idea about the depth of that relationship or how effective it is over time. Now, we are introducing them to sort of a premium matchmaking service where they get curated experiences with the right partner to give them a better chance for a longer term relationship and make a deeper connection. I think that’s appealing to many advertisers to execute on something that has a little bit more meaning—a little bit more depth to it—and lets them tell a little bit more of their own story.
India: How have you seen native advertising evolve since you’ve been involved, and what are some positive indicators you are seeing of the market evolving and embracing it?
Melanie: It’s been a much bigger part of the marketing conversation in the last couple of years. The more we talk about something, the more we can agree as an industry on best practices and the way we can do things ethically and show that disclosure is clear and that we are not tricking anyone. Only when we start having those conversations can we really arrive at the same place.
The more advertisers have done this type of content, the more comfortable they get with telling less branded stories that are more focused on bringing value to the consumers. In the early days, a lot of advertisers thought of this as a glorified advertorial. They were not seeing the types of results that they wanted because they were telling branded stories that didn’t add a tremendous amount of value to the consumer. I don’t want to read a full page article about why you are great, instead of looking at a small banner ad about why you are great.
That level of comfort has gone up as more and more people have experimented and have learned from doing this. I think we are seeing the overall quality rise because they are asking those important questions of “we did that once, and it didn’t work, so why didn’t it work? Let’s try something different.” We are starting to see experimentation happen, and we’re seeing more of those conversations that are focused on what value an advertiser can bring to the consumer. That makes my heart smile, as a former journalist, that they are seeing and embracing the power of storytelling.
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