It's a dog-eat-dog environment in advertising. But when it comes to native ads, who is the wolf?
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Who’s Afraid of Native Ads?

Now that marketers can pay for admittance into the upper echelon of publications, the use of native advertising is growing. But why? Why do marketers who are living in uncertain times for the media business choose to invest in experimental native ads in digital publications—ads placed within editorial—instead of easily measured advertising like digital display?

Native Ads Help Marketers Slip Past the Trust Threshold Like No Other Ad Format

According to a recent survey of members of the Association of National Advertisers, nearly three in five respondents—increasingly frustrated by the diminishing returns of traditional advertising—had executed a native ad buy in the past 12 months. Moreover, the majority of both B2B and B2C respondents indicated that budget for native would increase next year. So what distinguishes a native ad?

According to the same ANA research, “Native advertising is an advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing messaging in the context of the user’s experience. Native ad formats match both the form and function of the user experience in which they are placed. The advertiser’s intent is to make the paid advertising feel less intrusive and increase the likelihood users will engage with it.”

By this definition, native ads were conceived to slip past people’s defenses by wearing the disguise of real stories printed by a trusted publication. The slippery slope from sponsoring content to sponsoring preferential treatment has at least one journalists feeling “something akin to horror.”

How did we get here as marketers—so hungry for attention in a world of increasingly skeptical media consumers—so starved that we’ve become just like the wolf that came for The Three Little Pigs or the wolf in The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids?

Native Is the Only Solution to a PR Crisis

Oh to be placed on the front page of a national newspaper or magazine! Most of us will never feel that rush outside of sponsoring content. Most companies aren’t interesting enough by nature and will never have the desire to coordinate Red-Bull-style space jumps or develop new technology like hoverboards by Lexus. As a result, even moderately cool companies like Netflix have to pay to play in the modern PR environment.

Netflix has produced two of the best examples of sponsored content. The first, called “TV Got Better,” lays out the whole Netflix manifesto to readers of Wired magazine in a fun and arresting digital presentation. The focus on producing a completely new visual web experience was so successful that the piece in Wired drew immediate comparisons to The New York Times‘ breakthrough with “Snow Fall.” Thanks to big budgets, sponsored content producers can afford to build interactive web pages studded with original video and data visualizations that pull readers through the larger story—advances in storytelling that are only possible with marketing budgets.

Screen capture of TV Got Better by Wired and Netflix

The second piece from Netflix is just as immersive and even weightier. This pitch-perfect ode to the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black explores the plight of real life “Women Inmates.”

Women Inmates Sponsored Content by Netflix and New York Times Brand Studio

This piece is about as well done as a sponsored product pitch can get because of its commitment to report on real life without distorting the story to suit a product. The astonishing 1,500-word piece collects quotes and perspectives from former female prisoners and prisoner rights advocates and blends them with federal government statistics about life in prison. A year after this piece was published, the advanced use of video and web animation techniques are still notable. But the results remain hard to measure outside of soft metrics like page views and social shares. How can businesses compare the five- and six-figure cost of premium sponsored content to the cache of free feature stories like the one that 60 Minutes ran on Amazon?

60 Minutes produced an infomercial for Amazon

In terms of ROI for content discovery, there is no comparison between the free infomercial that Amazon scored from 60 Minutes and sponsored content; the trouble is that there are not many top-tier or mid-tier media opportunities out there. Let me hit you with three withering stats for old-school journalists and PR pros alike.

1) Newspaper Print Ad Revenue Has Fallen Every Year Since 2006.

The Slide of Print Reveneues

2) Newsroom Jobs Disappear Every Year.

Newsroom Workforce Still Dropping

3) Newsstand Circulation Continues to Nosedive Year-Over-Year.

Newsstand Circulation in the Magazine Industry Plummets

How can businesses hope to capture the attention of over-worked journalists and editors at shrinking news outlets fighting to stay relevant in a world full of digital natives with limited attention spans? In this tough media environment, they can’t. So while some companies like Netflix are creating great sponsored pieces across the board, others like BP are willing to slap their names on fluffier stuff all for the love of page views.

BP Sponsors Content on the History of The Burrito

Programmatic Native Might Allow Marketers to Scale

Branded content for native advertising does not have to be created by a publisher like The New York Times or Wired. It’s possible to create original content that can be placed on many different publisher sites using a growing number of native ads platforms like Nativo. This summer, Google also got into the native advertising game when it announced new features to its DoubleClick Ad Platform. While larger pieces of sponsored content are expensive and difficult to manage for smaller marketing teams, native advertising platforms offer a greater scale of smaller opportunities to borrow audiences on publisher sites via original branded content.

Native Is Becoming Mainstream—But Where’s the Ethical Boundary?

Going back the ANA study referenced at the beginning of this article, it states that three-fourths of respondents believe that an ethical boundary exists when dealing with native advertising. But advertisers under so much pressure to reach and influence audiences can’t be trusted to protect that boundary. Unfortunately, publishers under just as much pressure to earn revenue have already, in many ways, thrown themselves to the wolves. So how will this situation unfold?

At this point in my life, I don’t expect to continue learning from parables and kids’ stories. But did you ever hear the old joke about the wolf who steals the old maid? It turns out that she keeps him as her husband. There’s a strange marriage taking place between brands and publishers, and native advertisements will only continue to improve as the two become more inseparable.

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