The problem with native advertising

Native advertising is one of the great buzz phrases of this media age.

But what does native advertising actually mean? 

As with any new trend, particularly those where large sums of cash are involved, it seems there are as many definitions as there are interested parties. 

Is it just another term for an advertorial?

Or is it, as John Oliver contends, a dangerous blurring of the boundaries between church and state; an unwelcome opportunity for brands to use their wealth to dictate the way the news is reported?

Certainly that’s a possibility if media organisations allow their editorial integrity to be compromised by advertisers’ interests.

But I think there’s a more fundamental issue with native advertising.  The focus seems to be entirely on the ‘native’ bit, not the ‘advertising’ bit.

It’s easy to see why.  The whole subject of ‘native’ is potentially very confusing and raises lots of difficult questions.

If an advertiser pays a media organisation to produce an article or video that looks just everything else that media organisation creates then is that just an advertorial?

Even if it is better produced and less obviously marked as an ‘advertisement feature’ than in the past?

And how useful is it for an advertiser to blend in completely with the surrounding editorial? 

It is the lack of brand disclosure to which John Oliver most strongly objects, and leads to confusion and mistrust among consumers.

If the subject matter is contentious (fracking, perhaps?) then arguably it is in the advertiser’s interests to go for full camouflage and make it to look as though the piece was produced by the media organisation itself.

But assuming the end goal is to make the public better disposed towards a particular brand or service, then surely at some point the advertiser has to reveal itself? 

At which point there’s a risk the consumer feels duped and the result for the brand is neutral or even negative.

In his Media Week article explaining why Vizeum is adding the term ‘co-owned’ to the paid, owned and earned mix, Scott Magee suggests there needs to be a point of equilibrium between the consumer brand and the media brand.

I think ‘co-owned’ is a useful way to think about partnerships to ensure that both parties are represented equally. 

But it doesn’t get to the heart of the native advertising issue.

So here’s a thought.  Maybe it’s not the ‘native’ bit that’s the problem at all.  Maybe the ‘advertising’ bit is where the issue lies.

You see we’re all conditioned to know what advertising looks like.  It’s the 30” spot in between the TV programmes, or the 25×4 press ad tucked away in the corner of the page, or the MPU sat neatly to one side of the screen away from the editorial.

Advertising is the state to editorial’s church.  Separate and distinct.  Each in its place; one feeding off the other.

And that’s fine.  Advertising works.  Good old-fashioned traditional advertising is still in rude health, despite what some folk would have you believe.

I think the problem comes when traditional advertising isn’t the best way for an advertiser to communicate with its target audience.

A 25×4 ad in a newspaper might work just fine, but the physical size of a mobile banner on a newspaper smartphone app means it won’t have the same impact or allow the advertiser to impart the same amount of information, even when placed next to exactly the same piece of editorial.

When confronted with this situation the advertiser’s choices are to a) not advertise on mobile and accept the reduction in reach, b) continue to advertise on mobile but accept the reduction in impact, or c) do something entirely different in mobile that doesn’t look like traditional advertising but will still reach and influence the right people.

Smart advertisers are therefore looking to create experiences that make best use of the device they will be seen on.   And often that isn’t an ad.

In many cases they will still use a media organisation for production and distribution, but the primary driver is the need to design content that is native to the platform, not just the media outlet.

This will sometimes take the form of a written article, which is where the advertorial comparison generally comes in. 

But images, games, gifs, videos, quizzes, polls and the like could all be categorised as ‘native advertising’ if they’ve been specifically designed to fit within the environment in which they are consumed.

They’re definitely not advertorials. 

And I don’t think consumers have too much of an issue with that type of content, judging by the regularity with which Buzzfeed or Us Vs Th3m pop up in my Facebook or Twitter feed at least.

Native? Absolutely. 

Advertising? Not as we know it.

I’d say we need to stop worrying about ‘advertising’, native or otherwise, and start thinking more broadly about smart ways to communicate effectively with target audiences. 


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