Going Native

Native advertising has been around for a patch now. “Pay-to-play” content began appearing in newspapers (and later over the airwave) as early as the 1910s. Native ads, as noted by the SMstudy® Guide, “blend in with their surroundings” and “are promotional pieces attempting to look like the material to which they are adjacent.”

So, native ads, compared to “regular” ads, feel a lot like editorials, but are in fact ads dressed up to look like legitimate editorial content and all that that denotes, in particular, “free of influence.”

For much of their existence, at least from the news/editorial camp, native ads have been the harbinger of the breach in the ever-threatened levy between editorial and advertising. In addition, they were met with a fair degree of criticism for their deceptive nature. Deceptive because, by its core definition, native advertising is “a form of advertising that matches and blends in with the medium it appears on. Ads use the same form as the content contained in the medium,” according to author Vishveshwar Jatain, and when done well, it should cause no “disruption” in the reader or viewers experience and blend in such a way as to “dupe” them.

Criticism of native advertising has lessened over the years and native ads are, in fact, seeing a rebirth in our current digital landscape. This isn’t the first time native advertising has morphed to fit in with new technologies. At every step, it has adapted, whether it be radio, television and now…the Internet. Darwin would be impressed.

But simply adapting to a new environment doesn’t necessarily account for its renaissance. For this, we need to delve into the huge financial hit the news media took when the public caught on to the idea of “free” online news. While for many of us a great boon, free online news has led to a drastic decline in subscribership. Pile on the abundance of virtual advertising space currently available (compared to the finite space of a newspaper) and we begin to understand the severely limping revenue streams news outlets are wading in. This financial pinch (stranglehold) experienced in the news media landscape led to a shocking reduction in funds for 1. paying journalists and 2. paying for resources so journalists could do their jobs. For a peek into the harsh takedown of news media in the mid-2000s, visit paper cuts, a site that tracked layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers between 2007-2012.

At the same time, we saw the rise of content marketing (related to the decline of news outlet’s ability to provide quality content? Perhaps a topic for another blog). Based on current research and data, we, the people, are overwhelmingly fond of content marketing, but only if it provides relevant, valuable information. We’re fond even when we know it’s an ad!

And even though the concept of deception and the potential breach of the great wall dividing adverts and editorial is still a thorn in the side of ethically-fierce news folk,  native advertising is back in action and is a natural ally of content marketing.

Whatever the reservations of some legacy news outlets to native adverts, some sites don’t suffer the same ethical hemming and hawing. In fact, some have found very innovative ways to pro-actively manage the content marketing that appears on their sites.

Forbes, under the leadership of Lewis Dvorkin, has created a department called BrandVoice (originally AdVoice) to focus on the content needs of its advertisers. Headed by Forbes Media chief revenue officer, Meredith Levien, BrandVoice is a division of Forbes completely separate from the editorial staff. BrandVoice has hired editors, reporters, designers, and so on in order to offer high-quality content to its advertisers. And business is booming. In fact, Levien sites BrandVoice as the main factor for the company’s high revenue in 2012, a five-year best.

Other outlets who have embraced native advertising are Buzzfeed and The Onion, the 34-year-old satirical news outlet. Onion Labs, a division of Onion Inc., offers its top-notch writers to advertisers for content development with the added bonus of extreme hilarity.

From the Onion Labs web page:

“Onion, Inc. has perfected influencing some of the hardest to reach audiences in the world, through intelligent, insightful and often hilarious content.

Through our content services division, Onion Labs, we offer that influence to brands. We’ve combined the greatest comedy and pop culture writers in the world with some of the most decorated advertising minds in the business.

Onion Labs works with each client to understand the brand’s strategic goals, then builds custom content solutions that are distributed through both Onion, Inc. and client channels.”

And as the good word spreads (a recent Pew Research report notes a major uptick in investment, in 2012, ads rose 38.9%, to $1.56 billion following a 56.1% increase in 2011), other outlets are testing the waters as well, including Hearst, Time and Conde Nast.

So, all signs point to content marketing channeled through native advertising as a direction worthy of investigation, at least from a marketing standpoint…however, maybe not the sort of investigation diehard journos would like to see.

For more on sales and marketing, visit smstudy.com.

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