Native Advertising, Explained: Cannes Edition

Guest post by Andrew Graham of Clear.

This is a guest post by Andrew Graham, co-founder of Clear.

WPP, Daily Mail, and Snapchat have partnered to create a new company that will, in the words of London’s Guardian, “cash in on the rise of native advertising.” WPP CEO Martin Sorrell put it even less elegantly, stating, “I believe in eating your own children.”

The deal is bound to renew focus on how earned, owned and paid media continue to evaporate into one consistent fog. For PR pros who need a refresher, here are some basics of native advertising and a bit about what the three companies probably saw that led to the partnership.

Defining native advertising

Native advertising is the practice of making an ad on a platform resemble whatever content the user is there to see or read. A native ad on a social network would appear in a user’s social stream alongside updates from their friends. A native ad on PRNewser would look like this post, which isn’t an ad, instead of a banner or a pop-up deliberately separated from all the stuff Patrick, Shawn and Tonya write.

Making paid content “native” to the rest of the platform in question isn’t exactly new. Advertorials existed far before today’s digital environment, and they even created a bit of demand for niche marketing firms to create news-like ads for print and broadcast media.

Many PR pros–even digitally savvy ones–confuse content marketing with native advertising. They’re different. Think of content marketing as the message and native advertising as the container it’s delivered in. Content marketing is the larger strategy and native advertising is one way of executing on it.

A matter of transparency

There hasn’t been a ton of discussion about native advertising from a design perspective, and that’s a problem.

The consensus is that digital publishers should give readers some kind of cue to know they’re reading content that’s paid instead of earned. But advertisers do want native ads to look like editorial; that’s the entire point. Obviously, an ad can’t be indistinguishable from editorial and separated from it at the same time. It either has to look the same or not look the same as the editorial.

One issue is how these visual cues will vary from publisher to publisher. Who’s honestly trying to separate the two, and who’s selling their readers out? At what point in the process distinguishing an ad from the editorial does the ad cease to be native?

It would be great if it were impossible to see or read a native ad without first knowing it was paid and not earned, but the likelihood of this happening all at once across the industry is slim to none.

Publishing’s structural problems

Native advertising gives publishers a new product to sell. But it doesn’t solve the structural problem with digital publishing: instead of publishers selling content to readers, they are selling readers to advertisers.

Long-term, the growth opportunity for publishers is in surveillance, not sponsored content. Advertisers have an unlimited appetite for information and analytics on users; publishers have consistent and repeated access to those users. This helps business observe consumers in new and inventively intrusive ways.

Native advertising as a tactic also isn’t inherently connected to publishing. Social-native ads appear alongside regular updates in users’ feeds, and they’re one of the bigger way that social media companies are monetizing their users. Native advertising will occur in whatever digital environment eyeballs seek out.

Automation is next

Right now, native advertising is (oddly) not automated in the same ways other advertising inventory is. But that’s beginning to change.

Programmatic technology–software that allows advertisers to buy and fill large amounts of ad inventory on an automated basis–will soon sell native ad inventory en masse, which will then give large companies the ability to scale native ad campaigns and better analyze their impact on sales.