‘Native’ content is the new buzz. Publishers have bonus inventory and media agencies are selling what PR agencies can’t. Vanity and “almost editorial” are in vogue. There’s just one problem with the hoopla. The words ‘editorial’ and ‘article’ are mentioned more often in conversations than the word ‘marketing’. So, for starters, let’s call that out. Native content is marketing, not disguised editorial.
Last year, a report predicted that 74 per cent of all advertising in the US will shift to native formats by 2021. It also predicted that this growth will be largely attributable to Facebook and Twitter (social native of the type that chases us on our Facebook timeline) and other native ad formats that will replace display inventory. These are basically ad formats that fit in. However, native or sponsored content (premium native) will be the fastest growing format, limited only by cost of production and publisher inventory. An everyday browse through online publishers tells me that India is fast learning the ropes.
The cynic’s voice notwithstanding, native formats is a huge leap from the near invisible but most efficiently bought 300x50 pixel banner campaign, on a small mobile screen. Arguably, even a leap from the evergreen “innovations” that occupy space meant for a reader or digital consumer to walk through. Having been on both sides of the lens, I speak confidently for native advertising and sponsored content. Native impressions are not just number counts but a chance at real engagement. The combined might of a publisher’s content capability and audience, the customer’s choice of environment, and the “softer but harder” sell is a potential win formula for brands.
Many advertisers, including me, have for long struggled with the fact that their ambition of leveraging the internet for its rich, interactive content possibilities has often been stifled by the steep investments and bandwidth required to create and populate self-owned platforms with quality traffic. More evolved native content solutions offer a readymade solution to most of that. They even allow attribution. Brand owners do not need to worry about quality content, versatility of format, environment, and traffic acquisition. The only pain point that remains in this equation is—who owns this customer relationship.
Some advertisers do get this. More importantly, they understand that native content is not a paid press release. Nor is it an advertorial. They allow the medium to find its formats. They recognize the opportunity to engage customers in an environment and form of their own choosing. And they don’t fight it or ruin it by paying to put a company boiler plate.
A great example is the native content created by the T Brand Studio for the TV show Orange Is The New Black (http://paidpost.nytimes.com/netflix/women-inmates-separate-but-not-equal.html). This is a brilliant example of how a TV show used its central theme to engage NY Times readers with information that adds value and knowledge, compellingly packaged with images, videos, infographics, and text. The brand association is unmistakable but the feature resists the temptation of even mentioning it. Another fantastic example is the native piece done by Scoopwhoop (https://www.scoopwhoop.com/Things-Boys-Dont-Take-Seriously/#.n3pohbnec). A lot of my copywriter friends will agree that the storytelling is masterful, simply for the fact that it lulls you into the brand message, brings a smile to the face, and stops short of selling anything.
But I’m not convinced that all marketers and agencies have mastered the art or science of native content. The evidence for that is provided by the number of briefs that are accompanied by press releases and boiler plates. How a company boiler plate adds to native content is a million-dollar guess.
There’s further proof—look at the metrics and the measurement. I was asked recently by a very senior media buyer, who, rather earnestly, wanted to understand this new space, as to how many people should read his client’s article. I gave him an honest answer. It depends, I told him. If you’ve found the right audience fit, if your content is as newsy/click worthy as the site’s content, if your brand has drawing power and if you’re truly integrated natively, you could get a good ball park from the publisher and make a reasonable guess. Spend a little money on enriching the content, adding layers of media and genuine value to the customer’s life and you’ll have insurance on that number. More importantly, you’ll have created, natively, enriching content that the publisher will gain from and want to promote. Possibly, you will too. But there’s no guarantee. Finally, it’s content and there’s no science to the number.
His reaction was priceless. The censored version was basically that everyone had given him a number—some magical number. And his clients believed it too. But it was obvious that this was a game of Blind Man’s Bluff. Seasoned as he is, his next question was on mark. How do we increase the probability of success? How do we master the art and science? Is there a list to think through? A check list to reward perhaps? And that led me to the following:
In that order: chase the right audience for your message, choose environment by exclusion (remember, whom you consider your customers have already made their choice of platform) and allow your idea to mould into the medium. Corporate mandates, no-go for adult sites and sometimes respect for the message (financial performance for example) are some things that could lead to an exclusion list. Vanity, the boss’s preferred media and lazy choices, shouldn’t.
If you ever saw tourists wearing local attire to feel the culture of a place, you’ll see where I’m going next. It isn’t good enough to dress up. A resident can tell a native from a mile. So, don’t try and construct the native product. Wherever possible, rely on the platform’s ability to mould your message. Platform owners and publishers with an audience and an idea to engage with your message need to jump up a few paces. This game is all about engagement.
If you have constructed a message (for example, an infographic that only your data can provide or a great video), look for platforms that will use that natively but with brand attribution. This infographic from Zomato was used natively by many publications http://retail.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/this-is-how-indians-ordered-food-online-in-2015-infographic/50395564
The best briefs are media neutral. We all accept that. And the best execution platforms come with their own unique take on executing the message or idea.
Native is not only equal to an article. It could take many forms. Text links (in my view, these are ads masquerading as native content), microsites, videos, and infographics. Here is an example of a brand using a platform to deliver a platform http://www.hindustantimes.com/brandstories/tatateajaagore
Placement and amplification are data-driven discussions. This is where premium is deserved and should be paid.
My final point, at the cost of sounding repetitive. Native content is finally marketing, not disguised editorial. The power of native is about consistency and seamless user experience, which leads to greater engagement and, in my view, more effectiveness. That’s what earns the premium. Brand attribution is and should be an integral part of this, both for the publication and for the brand. All research so far, including my own, proves that people click through what they want to. Content quality and packaging is the single biggest variable in this equation. Brand attribution is not. In fact, my gut says, if anything, customers reward transparency.
The future of the internet is undeniably linked to mobile consumption. The future of monetization of content platforms on the mobile internet will largely depend on the success of seamless, native formats. Facebook’s timeline is conclusive proof. Closer home, Zomato’s native templates are another example to look at. And finally, Indian publishers are rapidly evolving their capabilities at partnered/sponsored content.
Though our conversations are still behind the curve, I am hopeful that we are heading home.
(The author is an ad man turned marketer and a successful digital immigrant, currently with HT Media)
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of exchange4media.com