What is native advertising? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Miranda Ward cuts through the confusion to nail down a definition for the latest trend taking online by storm.
When online publisher The Sound Alliance hired what it claimed to be “Australia’s first native advertising editor” in September this year, it marked a turning point for an emerging form of advertising that still baffles many in the industry. Commenting on the announcement of Melanie Mahony’s appointment, one reader said what so many were thinking: “I read this article three times and still have no idea what this person does or what native is.”
Tim Duggan, The Sound Alliance’s content director who oversees platforms including Junkee, Faster Louder and inthemix, says it’s a dilemma Mahony faces on a daily basis when she presents her business card.
He says: “People have never heard of native advertising.”
So what is it then? According to Duggan, native advertising is a take on old-school advertorial, a new and improved version where content is designed to look like part of the platform it’s positioned within. The content may not even mention the associated product or brand message.
Last week News Corp launched its first native advertising offering, a promotional piece for the ‘Gold Coast: Theme park capital of Australia’ campaign. It began on news.com.au with an article written by lifestyle reporter Daniel Strudwick. Strudwick’s piece talked about ‘why you should do something every day that scares you’. There was no reference in the copy to Gold Coast theme parks. The story appeared in the website’s main news feed for 24 hours and was differentiated from normal editorial content with a ‘featured partner’ logo and a page take-over style image in the background. The launch piece was followed by further news.com.au stories including ‘the weirdest and funniest water slide faces ever’, ‘life lessons from your five-year-old self’ and ‘the 10 weirdest fish’.
Duggan says: “The power of native advertising is that it’s good content that people are going to read. If it’s not good content and people don’t want to read it, it’s not native advertising.”
Another publisher getting into the native advertising space is women’s lifestyle website Mamamia. In the past year they have created several video series sponsored by brands including the recent Holiday Inn-funded four-part series ‘The little things that are big to you’ which looked at holidays and memories. Jamila Rizvi, Mamamia editor, says: “You want to say ‘I would have run this piece of content even if there wasn’t that advertising dollar behind it because this is great content and I know the readers are going to enjoy it’.”
For Adam Ferrier – co-founder of Naked Communications in Australia, and soon to be chief strategy officer at CumminsRoss – the term native advertising is a relabelling of something which already existed. He defines native advertising as “contextually relevant advertising that adds, not subtracts, to the consumer experience”.
But don’t think old school advertorial can be passed off as native advertising. James Bush, a creative technologist at M&C Saatchi in Sydney, says “confusing contextually relevant content with sponsored content or advertorial” is one of the most common mistakes made by companies venturing into native advertising. He says: “To be native, it must be created specifically and uniquely for the channel it appears in and be unable to be replicated in any other content.”
Duggan agrees. He says: “You can’t just take what you did as advertorial and rename it native advertising and hope that no one notices. You need to invest in it properly. Invest in time so you understand what it is, invest in resources so you figure out how you as a publisher can achieve the goal of native advertising and then thirdly, you need to invest in it financially with the right resources so you can make sure you create good content.”
Ben Cooper, The Monkeys director of digital, says the beauty of native advertising is that it can “cut through the noise and make content from brands relevant again” while Duggan has a three-check system for identifying good native advertising. The checklist is as follows:
1. Is it quality content?
Duggan says: “Native advertising can’t be shit. Essentially that’s what separates it from advertorial.”
2. Is it inspired by a brand?
“Different brands want to get different things out of it,” he says. “The job of the publisher is to interpret that in a way that keeps the audience at the centre.”
3. Is it delivered in-stream?
“The content needs to appear in the same exact place as every other piece of content on the website,” says Duggan.
So how does native advertising differ from branded content or branded entertainment? Ferrier believes native advertising is bigger than the concept of branded content. He says: “I don’t think the term branded content has been broad enough to capture all the different opportunities native advertising has.”
Duggan also believes branded content can fall under the heading of native advertising.
He says: “If branded content is done really well, then it’s a form of native advertising. If it’s done a bit shit, then it’s more a form of advertorial.”
An example that Duggan references is Fairfax Media’s recent launch into the native space. Labeled ‘Brand Discover’ the offering allows brands to create, design and promote their content across smh.com.au and theage.com.au. Fairfax commissions journalists to write the articles. The first such campaign saw business and technology journalist Brad Howarth pen five articles for CommBank. Duggan says Fairfax’s native offering only ticks two of his three-check system. He says: “It’s really quality content. It’s really well written by great journalists and it’s written by the same people who write the rest of the content for the website. It is inspired by a brand, it kind of has the brand at the heart but the part they’re not getting right is delivering in-stream.”
“Their native advertising doesn’t look like every other story on the website, it’s in its own special section. It’s designed differently so visually the audience thinks, ‘ah, okay it feels more like advertorial’.”
Ed Harrison, Fairfax Media’s group sales director, disagrees. He says: “Everybody will have different interpretations of that. It’s not black and white, there will be shades of grey. It will be decision making in that area that determines whether or not it’s successful. Fundamentally it will come down to what adds value as a user experience, that’s why our editorial team are tightly involved in this process. It’s their judgement call as to whether that piece is adding that level of value to the user experience.”
Ultimately, the companies already working in the space have one goal in mind – to create something people want to pass around. Duggan says: “The aim with native advertising is to put a brand at the centre of content that is so good, it gets shared or tweeted. That’s the holy grail that we try to achieve. The best thing that native advertising should achieve is the audience engaging with it.”
While audiences are usually quite savvy when it comes to spotting the difference between advertising and editorial, native advertising is blurring that line. Those working in the space say it’s up to the content creator to indicate where something has been generated by an advertising dollar.
Duggan says: “What people do wrong is not signposting it, so trying to fool people into reading content. Native advertising is not about tricking the audience into reading something and then saying ‘gotcha’ at the end.”
Ferrier says: “The worst thing you can do is give the consumer a duplicitous experience, where they think they’re looking at something only to discover they’re looking at something else.”
Mamamia editor Rizvi says: “It’s important that the reader knows where what they’re reading is coming from, and to me that’s not just about native advertising. That’s about any editorial content we run on our website. We try really hard in the way we declare it to reassure the reader.” Native posts on Mamamia are clearly labelled at the bottom with sponsor information.
The Monkeys’ Cooper believes “full disclosure is the best way to go”. He says: “Ultimately people will applaud it when its in the right context.”
The publishers that have been quick to adopt native advertising say they have done so because the trend is on the increase. Duggan predicts “every major publisher will offer a native advertising solution within six months, and if they don’t, they’re probably going to be in trouble”.
Ferrier is in agreement. He says: “What we’re going to see more and more and more of in all forms of media is the blurring of content and commercial messaging. As long as the consumer is getting something out of that, I don’t think it’s a negative thing.”
Yet there is still much education needed to bring the industry and advertisers up to speed.
Duggan says: “Publishers, advertisers, marketers and media need to discuss and debate and showcase good examples and talk about why some things are bad examples so that the whole industry can grow over the next six to 12 months and turn into what it should be, which is a really exciting possibility combining content and marketing together for the benefit of the audience.”
Mamamia’s Rizvi says: “There’s a real role for us there in educating and bringing people along with us to show them that this new style of advertising that is less overt, less in your face, is actually the right way to go given how media savvy and advertising savvy audiences have become.”
As the next generation of ‘digital natives’ ages, Rizvi says native advertising is only going to become more prolific.
She says: “More and more we’re seeing kids taught in school about media literacy, advertising literacy and brands. This is normal for generation Y and younger. So as they age, we’re going to have to be smarter as advertisers to be able to get messages through to them. That’s where native advertising is going to play a really big role.”
This feature first appeared in Encore. Download it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.