Marketing Content Strategy

Does Native Advertising Work?

6 Minute Read

“Look, you’re going to love this piece! No more smashing your customers in the face with ad hammers. Instead, I write an inspirational article about the cutting-edge value of contemporary widgets and throw in some stuff about hipsters using them now too. We put your logo and a subtle ‘sponsored by’ message in the corner, and I send it out to Forbes, the Atlantic, BuzzFeed—hey, this native advertising thing is the real deal!”

If you’ve never ventured into the brave, new(ish) world of native ads, you might take a big swing at that pitch. After all, the dentist’s drill of interruption advertising can seem like a pain of diminishing returns. Native advertising is one of content marketing’s cousins: it carries the sense that you win over a customer these days by reaching out (gently) with wise counsel, objective information, and the invitation to an ongoing conversation.

But there’s another side to native advertising—and if you have ventured into that world, you likely know it all too well. It’s that lack-of-control side, that “maximum effort for minimal gain” side. For those who are unfamiliar, let me explain: imagine your team is working with a journalist to create your next native ad. Because you lack total creative control over the piece, the journalist you were working with crafted the article with an example that doesn’t quite fit the story your brand is trying to tell. That’s frustrating, but you’re willing to let it slide—until the story goes live, and you see it on the site for the first time. Outside of that “sponsored by” byline, your brand has no claim to the story. And when the piece inevitably falls off the site’s homepage, it’ll stop garnering attention. Image attribution: eMarketer

Here’s my point: In a time when important demographics (whisper: millennials) are using ad blockers and regularly zoom to YouTube to see what their favorite influencers are wearing, drinking, or riding, traditional ads aren’t considered a content strategy. Native ads—usually placed in publications that are highly regarded (or at least highly visited)—are a great first step away from those interruptions of the not-too-distant past. They don’t head-butt consumers with their pleas to “buy me!” Instead, they can explore ideas, engage emotions, and win over defenses.

But when it comes to content marketing, they’re not the end-all, be-all solution they might appear to be at first pass. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of native advertisements and how you can use them as the first step in your path to progression along the Content Marketing Continuum.

Going Native

Maybe it’s time to dip your toes (or even your leg) into the native pond. If you’ve already got an established relationship with freelance writers (or an agency on retainer), you could consider them for copywriting and placement. Or maybe you’ve got talented copywriters in house and a marketing team with some savvy. Probably the most critical thing is not to go native willy-nilly—you need to have a plan.

At the very least, you have to do your homework in targeting an audience, allocating enough budget and time to try some variations in how you sponsor content, and of course, making your content interesting, helpful, and credible. After all, it’s not a content strategy without some strategy.

As a article pointed out, a good native ad is an ad, but it doesn’t read like one. The best native ad is both suitable to your audience and expressive of your company’s perspective, whether the topic is widgets or whales. But an infomercial does not a native ad make. Many firms will use social media, such as Facebook and Twitter feeds, to slip in their sponsored content. Going further, because mobile goes everywhere, Facebook provides guidelines and development tools for inserting native ads in mobile apps.

Image attribution: DariuszSankowski

Nothing Up My Sleeve

One of the loudest consumer (and analyst) cries when native ads first started appearing a few years ago was that it was deceptive. Here is where companies are smuggling in Trojan-horse content: what looked like an objective article turned out to be a paid promotion. Many of the earlier polls on native ads suggested that once consumers realized that a post or an article had an understated sales slant, they didn’t trust it. And didn’t trust the company behind it.

Tweaking occurred. Much—though not all—native material is more clearly transparent to the reader as to its origins, and more publications issued guidelines on how native ads are served up and labeled. It’s up to you to make it clear your relevant content doesn’t come with a mask. Let your widget wizards give consumers a look at who’s behind the screen, but the serious pressure is on you to make what’s on the screen worth looking at.

And are people looking? Some industry analysts say that native advertising, particularly on mobile, is a clear winner for eyeballs and sustained attention. But as that Content Insights article also suggests, the one-to-one connection between eyeballs and conversions is sketchy. “Just looking” isn’t a helpful response for widget vendors hoping to keep the lights on. Your native ad tracking should be sophisticated enough to see if the cash registers are ringing.

When in Rome . . .

Good native ads are of a piece with the place where they’re positioned. When Netflix ran an ad in The New York Times for Orange Is the New Black, it was a news-oriented piece that examined women’s prison issues that complemented the show’s content. Translation: You have to properly dress your ad for its surroundings. No fake news! Rather, a piece of content strategy. One that’s predicted to be worth $8.8 billion in 2018.

So, you can see that native advertising is a bit of a mixed bag. But it could be a bag that you want to include in your shopping. When your content is strong and relevant to your product, the ad placement is in the content family of the publication, and you have some decent analytics in place to see if the conversion dance is happening, you’re golden.

Moving Up the Continuum

Native ads are clearly a step up from old-school, in-your-face hard sell. They do incorporate some storytelling components of modern marketing, and if your widget tales can be woven into a persuasive piece of promotional poetry, you should add native to your marketing toolbox.

But it’s unlikely you’re going to make total bank on your native ads alone, and they’re not the comprehensive story-form solution your brand ultimately needs to break out from the ordinary and tell a compelling story to your audience. To do that, you need to push beyond an ad-centric mentality, break free from the restraints of purely campaign-oriented marketing, and work your way toward a wholly storified organization. It’s a long journey—one that takes guts, gusto, and a whole lot of talent—but the payoff for your brand (and for your content strategy) is hundredfold.

Where does your brand stand on the Content Marketing Continuum? Find out here.

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Tom Bentley is a content marketing copywriter and editor, a magazine feature writer,  a travel writer and a published fiction writer and editor. He's published articles in Forbes, The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, the San Jose Mercury News, Draft magazine and many more. He has won several nonfiction and fiction writing awards.

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