It’s Time for Marketers to Get a Fresh Perspective on What Native Advertising Can Be

As the space grows, the definition blurs

Marketers need to study up on what native advertising means and how they can implement it in their strategy. Getty Images

With the rise in complexity of digital media, the words “native advertising” have become watered down.

Originally the name for content that feels harmonious and original to its environment that respects a user’s time and attention, it is now a catch-all phrase for anything that resides in the feed and doesn’t live on social platforms like Facebook or Instagram.

As with any trend that starts from a concentrated area of interest and goes mainstream, the definition blurs and stretches as it scales. Organic used to be a thoughtful thing, and now every mass market touts it, playing loose with the rules. I think it is time to rein it in a bit.

It is useful to try and redefine this phrase for marketers. I believe firmly that a thoughtful media mix includes native content. Why? According to a Reuters study, 63 percent of consumers agree that personal, relevant content improves how they feel about the brand associated with it. A Time Inc. study revealed that two-thirds of consumers trust branded content more than traditional advertising. The average piece of native content earns 48 seconds of attention, which is more than the average TV commercial, according to Nudge Benchmarks.

When deployed correctly, native can drive 76 percent higher brand recall than online video and drive up to 3 percent conversion for campaigns with identified post consumption objectives. And it is working for conversion, as one-third of millennials have purchased from a brand after seeing a sponsored post, according to Business Insider.

Branded content is the idea; native is how it is appropriately packaged or delivered thoughtfully.

To clear the air regarding confusing and misused vernacular, here’s a simple way to think about it. Branded content is the idea; native is how it is appropriately packaged or delivered thoughtfully.

Native isn’t content rammed into a new format or ads sprayed and prayed across all content sites. There is nuance, attention to detail and harmony required. Making a campaign native is the considered act of allowing for adaptable creative to perfectly fit the end environment. It may take a bit of work from the original creative and media agencies to adapt to nuance, channel and audience, but in the end, it performs better.

For example, Cathay Pacific empowers quality of travel is the strategic idea. Cathay Pacific’s “Life Well Travelled” was the creative platform, the thoughtful integration on unpacking the concept of how Cathay enables more thoughtful travel through their onboard culinary offerings is the proper packaging that makes it native.

So, native is content that fits the form and function of its environment. It’s how things that fit the culture, vibe, technical background and flows with how the end user already engages with that destination.

Another vivid example: Vanguard offers investment products to end consumers. The challenge for them is how to connect with their potential customers in a way that resonates. Financial products can be complicated, requiring education and disclosure.

They partnered with The New York Times T Brand Studio to produce content under the tagline “$1 million is closer than you think.” It is a beautiful piece, well-branded and draws the end user in, because who doesn’t want to be closer to having a million dollars? The content fits the form and function of The New York Times. It even lets the end user participate and personalizes the material to them. Here’s how you can get to $1 million. It then seamlessly offers some calls to action: get personalized advice on your long-term goals, find the right fund to invest in and plan and prepare for retirement.

So, how do marketers get there? In planning, embrace that native is this translation layer all the way through to the medium; it is not the idea. Thus, marketers need to think about providing frameworks for their ideas to be delivered rather than rote delivery. In many ways, it’s classic, good old advertising, medium and message.

The crucial point where marketers go wrong is they lose sight of the idea through the value chain and think native is the idea. Native is the pipe that delivers the idea, so remove this from the creative brief and over to the distribution brief. But when evaluating the distribution, provide room for adjustment and contextual delivery. Trust your partners to deliver that nuance. They know their platforms and audiences and how to deliver your message—it’s the reason you initially selected them, often forgotten in the execution phase.

Importantly, deep empathy for the end user or consumer of the content is essential. When marketers respect the audience’s attention and spend the time to create something addictive and delivered in a contextually relevant way, it works. This goes wrong when marketers think about asset creation and then play a version of Connect Four across the web. When done well, respect for consumer attention, something interesting and a thoughtful vehicle for delivery need to come together harmoniously for the best results.

@bwagy Ben Young is the CEO of Nudge.