Tasked with raising awareness for her brand’s upcoming conference, it made perfect sense that Wen Chiu turned to native advertising. It made sense: by publishing her brand’s ad in the feed of a major publisher like The New York Times, she could drive the kinds of leads she was most hoping to capture. The prospect was thrilling—until she did some more research.
As a brand marketing strategist, Wen was in control of the look and feel of her brand. How could she just relinquish control to a publisher and trust them to maintain the essence of the content strategy she’d worked to build? Would this truly help her fuel attendance to her conference and build brand loyalty?
It’s no secret that marketers believe in native ads. It’s already eclipsed traditional advertising in ad revenue, and that trend is only poised to continue as time goes on. The tactic is now so widely accepted and commonplace that it requires creative thinking to stand out from the crowd. But in Wen’s experience, as with the experience many marketers have, the benefits come with some sacrifice—especially with more publishers and social media platforms placing stringent rules on the content they’ll run. Exactly how much control do these publishers have over native ads, and what elements of an ad might they seek to change?
Let’s consider what those questions mean and why they matter.
Publishers aren’t wrong for wanting some control over native content. Depending on the publication, content is a big business and its uniformity is a key part of the publisher’s product. If brands want their content to appear native, it must conform to some obvious guidelines—length, font size, voice, subject matter, etc.—but nobody really has an issue with that.
Control issues arise when brands expect their words and layout to appear as submitted, like in the good old days of interrupt advertising. Unlike the era of glossy print ads where kerning and color selection were agonized over for hours, the modern age of native advertising is a collaborative effort between the publisher and the advertiser.
The level of control a publisher has over branded content is ultimately up to them, but marketers get to decide where they allocate resources. Every native advertising opportunity should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but there are some general rules to follow when deciding where to publish and how much leeway to allow for.
Talking to Buzzfeed or The New York Times? You should probably let them tweak whatever they want to. One built a multibillion dollar business off integrating native advertising and original content. The other takes the format so seriously that it now runs an in-house advertising agency dedicated to crafting worthy native ads.
Trying to target a niche audience in an industry or specialized publication? Their editors and marketing department understand their audiences completely—so whatever changes they make will only make your content more endearing and trustworthy.
Some publishers and social media platforms are especially careful to integrate paid content into their feeds or original content. It’s tempting to want to cram every word and image in to get your money’s worth, but sometimes it’s best to get quality exposure rather than being overlooked because your ad crossed the line and looked, well, too much like an ad.
Native content is hardly new, but many brands still struggle to understand exactly how it differs from interrupt advertising. It’s not just a Tweet that looks like it’s from one of your friends but really is a picture of the exact same interrupt ad you run elsewhere. Successful native campaigns require do creative thinking and a willingness to kill some of your advertorial darlings in favor of reaching your audience in ways they’re willing to engage with. Relinquishing control of things that might be unthinkable for traditional ads is becoming commonplace in the native content world.
But for brands, there’s a bright side: now that ad blockers are everywhere, many publishers are scrambling for native content profit opportunities. This puts marketers in a position of power—interrupt ads don’t sell like they used to, and a few major outlets have seemingly cornered the market on cobranded content. As a result, many platforms should be willing to work with your brand to create content that fits their style guide without abandoning your creative team’s campaign goals. Don’t worry, you don’t have to lay off your entire marketing department and pay Buzzfeed to make branded cat videos. Not yet, at least.
The art of the native ad lies in its ability to stand out by fitting in. Delivering high-quality, on-brand, on-publication content decreases the chances that your branded collateral will be heavily edited by a publisher—and makes it that much more likely that your audience will read and engage with your native ad. That means meeting the guidelines of a given publisher and the goals of your campaign. So whether it’s a cat video, a clever Twitter one-liner, or an informative, feature-length article that establishes your brand as a thought leader in your space, create the best content you possibly can. Even if your ad looks like it came from The Times, or one of a million Facebook News Feed features, your brand’s unique knowledge and voice will make it stand out as something that’s clearly your own.