The Power Of “Native Advertising” Is In The Hands Of The Brands

Editor’s note: James Gross is co-founder of Percolate, a marketing company with a mission to help brands create content at a social scale. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Gross. 

There’s been much buzz around the term “native advertising” lately. And with the buzz has come a bit of backlash, and it’s been mostly from publishers who are looking at the native solutions for their sites and saying it is nothing more than a banner ad in a different spot.

If we are going to move the advertising industry forward, and if we believe in the concept that Internet advertising can look like something other than a banner, then we must better define why we’re in the state we’re in. The criticism of native advertising is important and merited, but examining publishers’ solutions to native advertising is like studying the effect; let’s better understand the cause.

Native Advertising’s Secret Sauce

Native advertising is comprised of two major shifts, both of which are being led by social platforms. First, native is defined by the users (people + brands) who create content using the same tools and streams. Second, native paid placement is interwoven. There’s no separate box: all messages — ad or not — are formatted the same way. The key is you need both of these shifts in order to truly create native advertising.

This shift is not easy to understand and it is even harder to execute well. We’ve come from a world where Interactive Advertising Bureau display ads dominated the digital advertising industry. Now we are moving to a world where we’re saying that every opportunity for brands to communicate with consumers will be native to the platform. (LinkedIn’s latest design refresh signals that the total end for banners in social is near. Even the lone social platform holdout with IAB-standard ads is aggressively pushing to a native model, too.)

Let’s look at Facebook as another example: any brand (we’ll use Starbucks for argument’s sake) uses the exact same Facebook Timeline as I do. There is really no difference except for the brand’s ability to build what’s essentially an infinitely large audience and send a message to them whenever they want. In this new world, fans and distribution are a function of cost. Starbucks’ opportunity comes from its marketing budget, which is something I, as an individual, don’t have the means to duplicate. This business model and behavior is the same on all social platforms, whether it’s Twitter, Tumblr or LinkedIn (and we can assume Pinterest and Instagram will follow): Pay to build an audience and deliver content like everybody else.

So how can you possibly scale native advertising? This is a real challenge and it needs to be solved for the giant social platforms to succeed as well as for traditional publishers to begin to implement native strategies.

I try not to ask people to sympathize with brands when they complain about silly Facebook updates or lame tweets, and we all now have the Condescending Facebook Brand Page to get a chuckle at. But consider for a moment that brands have grown used to creating TV commercials a few times per year and are now expected to create 10 to 50 pieces of content per day to support an always-on social strategy. This is extremely challenging, and unlike what others might say, brands are not people, and these platforms have natively been optimized for people.

Lending A Branding Hand

We need to get to the root of the native ad problem to help brands create content that will resonate with their audiences. Here are a few ways to solve this for brands:

  1. To create content in real time you have to consume content in real time. Brands don’t do that naturally, so they need to learn how to. The more they learn how to do this, the more real-time and culturally relevant they can be to their audiences in social and on a publisher’s website.
  2. Once a brand learns to create content in real time, it then needs to work on its voice and grow naturally as it learns from what works and why.
  3. The final step and the ultimate promise is to allow a brand to take the content that works — with the vast audiences in the millions that they now reach across social channels — and apply it to all their advertising. This could be brand-led posts on specific publisher sites, a potential native solution for digital publishers, or even bigger pieces of content such as TV commercials.

Native advertising is here to stay. Let’s define it correctly and make it the movement that finally makes digital advertising great.

[Image: OPENforum]