Success in Native Advertising Hinges on Preserving Best Practices

It also helps to really know your audience

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The drumbeat around native advertising has been pretty loud over the last few months and with good reason. Great online content drives consumer engagement. People are passionate about the content they love and about the sites they visit regularly to discover and share that content.

Marketers value those deep connections that consumers make in that exchange, and native advertising appeals to them because it can offer the opportunity to weave their brand message into consumers’ natural discovery habits. Many digital publishers have offered ways to do this for some time, as our recent study, Premium Content Brands Are Native Naturals, shows. With three-quarters of Online Publishers Association members offering some form of native advertising—and the possibility of this number hitting 90 percent by the end of 2013—marketers have access to valuable audiences to drive their brand goals.

However, access to audiences through native advertising is meaningless if the content isn’t compelling, right for the audience and surrounded by other high-quality content. The study also shows that the tried-and-true best practices around great content and audience cultivation are crucial to making native ad placements work.

While native advertising may be a new wrapper, at its core are best practices grounded in years of developing great content for audiences. In the words of one of our OPA members: “Our rule for native is that it has to provide as much value to the reader as our own content.”

So what are these best practices?

Making the native play fully transparent is paramount. Clear labeling of native content is key to a reader distinguishing an ad from editorial and meeting audience expectations. Native content should also be as discoverable as any other content on the site through tools like search and placement in high-traffic content areas. And sharing through social media is an important tool to extend discoverability.

Agreeing on metrics is crucial, too, as KPIs vary as widely as the native executions they are designed to track. More than half of OPA members in the survey reported that marketers are using engagement or time spent as one of their top metrics for native advertising performance. More than 43 percent are assessing the flow of traffic, and one-third are looking at social media sharing.

Additionally, publishers, who know their audiences best and can help marketers understand the content that best serves them, need to establish clear editorial standards. They should guide the process for developing and reviewing the native content, and also advise the best means for monitoring audience reaction.

Finally, finding ways to optimize native advertising for mobile means impact can be seen, and measured, wherever the consumer is engaging with your content.

A beacon for what native advertising can accomplish is GE, having developed programs with BuzzFeed, Slate, The Economist and others. Linda Boff, GE’s executive director of global brand marketing, reiterates the importance of consumer connection.

“First and foremost, know your brand, your customers and what you are trying to achieve when you engage them with your content. Seek out ways to genuinely connect with audiences and customers around shared interests and passions,” said Boff.

She emphasizes that brands must “work with trusted partners to help bring their ideas to life based on measurable objectives.”

It’s clear that effective native advertising comes from smart collaboration between marketers and the digital publishers who create the content people love and look to every day for entertainment, information, commerce—and delight.

While native advertising is only one of the myriad ways publishers and marketers can create next-generation partnerships to stay competitive in a fragmented, distracted and disrupted media and marketing landscape, it’s also one that relies on the hard-won expertise that publishers have built over decades.

Preserving that tradition in the inevitable marketing focus on native will set up both clients and their trusted publishing partners for future success.

Pam Horan (@OPA_PamHoran) is the president of the Online Publishers Association.

Illustration: Sergio Membrillas