Native Advertising Does Not Look And Feel, It “Is”

Native advertising is commonly defined as advertising that “looks and feels” like regular content, but I think this is where we, the advertising industry, get it wrong. Effective native advertising is advertising that simply “is.”

The industry is grappling with how to distribute, scale, and monetize native advertising with technology. The execution of native advertising, however, cannot be solved with technology since the goal is to leave an indelible mark on your target audience.

Throwing Mud at the Wall

When I first started working in the advertising industry, I believed in the concept of Effective Frequency, or the optimal number of times your target audience needs to see your advertising message before taking action. At the end of the day, media owners need to believe in this concept in order to maximize revenue from their inventory.

With the onset of native advertising, I began to see how silly and almost sad marketers work in the digital space.

Let me throw a bunch of display ads in front of you and interrupt your experience until my message resonates and you click through. You still haven’t clicked yet? We’ll throw even more display ads at you because you WILL engage eventually.

In this old view of the digital advertising world, the promise of any prominent media publisher to a marketer is audience and reach. I believe the promise of native advertising that improves upon this old model is audience and relevance. There are so many niche cable networks, blogs, and influencers that you can work with that give you audience and relevance, how do you reach them at scale?

Ad Tech Cannot Solve Everything

Many native advertising platforms today strive to place your branded content into the “feed” on websites that receive a lot of traffic. While your native ad looks and feels like the other content around it, it is still a charlatan in the feed. Readers may find your headline attention grabbing and there are better click-through rates compared to banner ads, but the content is still “advertising” to the consumer.

I came across this branded web series produced in 2011 called Leap Year. The brand is Bermuda-based insurance provider Hiscox who sought to enter the U.S. small business insurance market. Aside from the quick flash of the Hiscox logo at the beginning of each webisode, the series is a witty and entertaining look at startups and entrepreneurship. Is this considered native advertising? The brand is barely mentioned in the web series, but it’s clear that Hiscox sponsors the content. This is an example of where the best native advertising does not just look and feel, it “is” the content. Hiscox stated that Leap Year drove awareness for their brand from 0% to 10% in the U.S. and represented only 3% of their 2011 marketing budget.

With all the ad tech firms looking to automate and scale native advertising, I believe the best marketers and platforms know that creative execution is something where us humans need to step in. For native advertising to fulfill its lofty promise of amazing engagement from your target audience, the story itself has to be emotional, compelling, and simply “is” the advertising.