A marketer’s guide to native advertising

Native advertising is an in-vogue phrase, but how do brands distinguish themselves from the crowd and reach key audiences while also providing useful content that builds trust with consumers?

The release of native advertising guidelines from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) on how to conceive and manage native advertising suggests it’s a practice that is very much going mainstream. That said, there appears to still be some difficulty in defining what it is and how it works – critical if brands are to understand how to use it to generate desired outcomes.

As demonstrated by last week’s allegations made by the Guardian about advertisers’ influence over editorial at The Telegraph, and vice versa, it is also becoming increasingly important to ensure readers know where the lines between the two are drawn.

In its report ‘Native Advertising: What it means for brands and publishers‘, Econsultancy summarises it as paid-for content, an offshoot of content marketing that is a cost-effective way of getting content seen through paid distribution across a media owner’s network.

The same report identifies strong evidence for native’s usefulness, citing Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer’s opening speech at the 2014 Cannes Lions Festival where she advised that native ads are 3.6 times more likely to generate a web search for the featured brand than display advertising, and six times more likely to lead to a search for related materials. She also claimed that 46% of millennials who see branded content read or view it and a third of those then share it.

Reach, relevance and reference

For native advertising there are three key strands that must be in place: the ad must reach the right audience at a time and place it is receptive to the content; content must be relevant to what the consumer is expecting to read across the rest of the publisher’s site; and, finally, it needs to be shared and referenced by those it needs to influence.

Brands continue to debate the value of how much or little to bang the brand drum in native content. Many of those interviewed for this feature want to ensure content is ‘seamless’. Not without reason, brands are now educated enough to realise that content marketing shouldn’t be shoving a sales pitch down prospective customers’ throats.

“A lot of people have the impression that ads can just appear as part of editorial and in some way hide. The exact opposite is what makes good native advertising.”

Clare O’Brien, Internet
Advertising Bureau

But to be too subtle is to deceive the consumer, and indeed regulations from the Advertising Standards Authority demand that the commercial nature of native content be clearly marked with a disclosure of the company that is paying the media owner to publish it.

The IAB has also written its own guidelines, intended to help brands comply with the regulations and maintain trust in their native ads. The IAB advocates that clarity and prominence of the disclosure is paramount. It must:

  • Use language that conveys that the advertising has been paid for, thus making it an advertising unit, even if that unit does not contain traditional promotional advertising messages.
  • Be large and visible enough for a consumer to notice it in the context of a given page and/or relative to the device that the ad is being viewed on.

The advice is an attempt to dissuade marketers from the temptation to trick consumers, according to IAB senior industry programmes manager Clare O’Brien: “A lot of discussion about native is that it blends seamlessly with editorial, and that has given a lot of people the impression that ads can just appear as part of editorial and in some way hide. The exact opposite is what makes good native advertising.”

O’Brien goes on to insist that consumers really don’t mind if content comes from a brand if it is “useful, relevant and entertaining”. She insists that native is essentially just a positive evolution of digital advertising where it has a more natural positioning within the website content than a conventional banner and fits with the publisher’s environment.

Philips used Facebook to amplify native content promoting products such as Sonicare AirFloss

Matthew Gaunt, head of brand communication at Wickes, feels trying to ‘blend in’ is unnecessary: “Why would I be frightened of putting my name on it and being open and honest? Once you have the open approach you are genuinely trying to help customers. You’re adding genuine value.”

Meeting objectives

Native advertising, though related to display and paid search as much as content marketing, can pose questions for the marketer as to how best to use it to achieve specific business aims. With its ‘soft sell’ approach, it is tricky to place overt calls to action without undermining the intention to provide useful rather than biased information.

The first port of call for brands considering native advertising, even as they form their objectives for it, is to understand what content on a given platform can achieve.

Ewan McIntyre, head of digital marketing at Philips UK and Ireland, says “[Best practice] starts with content and works outwards from there. What does your audience want to see? If you get that right then the rest takes care of itself.” Philips recently partnered with The Telegraph and media agency Carat on the brand’s 100 Days of Life Changing Innovation content series.

Wickes’ Gaunt adds: “Native is about engaging new customers, not about how many things we can sell. We’re using it to move up the consideration ladder. This is a journey to bring Wickes to a new audience so we’re overhauling our media mix, to break out bite-sized content for reach and engagement.”

The ability to reach out to wider audiences is a recurring theme and particularly in sectors where consumer education plays a part. Wickes’ campaign with Trinity Mirror Solutions addressed this by focusing on TV and radio personality DIY Donny, with articles and videos of him attempting various tasks, demonstrating that people have more skills than they think.

“Native is about engaging new customers, not about how many things we can sell.”

Matthew Gaunt, Wickes

Discoverability is the element native advertising delivers to a degree that other tactics such as paid search do not. Fashion retailer Reiss’s media buyer Threepipe uses the Outbrain content aggregator to distribute its native ads across fashion sites that lead back to the company’s own blog. The company’s native campaign generated 36% higher average order value compared to display, served more than 66 million impressions and drove over 87,000 clicks to the blog.

“We’ve been doing paid search for a long time,” notes Stephanie Villegas-Ross, Reiss’s online marketing manager. “It’s also in the IAB Playbook as a form of native advertising but we don’t see it like that. [Paid search] gives people faster access to our products when they’re looking to shop or discover information about the brand but [the Outbrain campaign] is targeted at people looking through content sites. It’s a brand-led, softer sell.”

Capturing attention

Format has a significant impact on the success – or otherwise – of a native campaign. But it is not enough, it would seem, to copy the look of the existing content on publishers’ sites. In the field of video, for example, customers are generally welcoming of brand messaging but often when delivered in manageable bites.

Reiss’s Villegas-Ross discovered this through a period of hit and miss. “Some video we trialled was a challenge. It wasn’t video per se [that was the problem] but the type. There was too much brand storytelling and not enough for users who weren’t in our core group.”

She notes that short-form native advertising has performed best, and particularly listicles, which explains why native advertising on sites such as Buzzfeed is easily the most popular so far. While Reiss and Outbrain were a keen fit however, Philips’ McIntyre felt that his brand was more suited to longer-form editorial style with The Telegraph.

Keeping attention is as critical as capturing it and many of those interviewed warn that the customer experience on the journey from native ad to brand site and beyond had to be as good as possible. “Ultimately the on-site execution is crucial. If people come to your site from an off-site source with expectations which you don’t deliver on, you’ll get high bounce rates, low dwell times and will fail to drive the engagement you were after in the first place,” says Tom Osborne, senior digital content manager at British Gas.

B&Q’s Bonnie Jackson says: “One of our poorer experiences was with the online version of a national newspaper. They’d underestimated what the delivery would be on mobile or tablet and the ad wouldn’t serve on those devices. The journey wasn’t the best, the infrastructure wasn’t there. You need to work with people who understand this and some publishers are still dabbling.”

Native advertising has the capability to build a deeper connection with consumers both loyal and new but advertisers need to be conscious of their hard objectives, where they intend the customer journey to go next and which publishing partners will best serve their needs. The audience size in a particular channel is not necessarily vital, as other channels such as social media can enter the mix and amplify the message. On the other hand, native also needs to sit comfortably with the brand’s owned media, so the customer experience is consistent and, ultimately, profitable.

Why are you using native advertising as opposed to other forms of content or advertising?

We generate lots of content globally but in the UK it seemed the right thing to do for us to be considered an innovative brand. Our 100 pieces of original content for The Telegraph were good quality and touched on subjects that chimed with the consumer in terms of innovation.

How did you make sure the content of your native ad campaign with the Telegraph had maximum impact?

It was available to readers of The Telegraph in both print and digital [along with] standard ad placements, but we needed to make sure we amplified it so social channels were hugely important. Our target audience has [older parents and younger children] and Facebook worked very well for this.

What was your strategy for amplifying the content from this campaign using Facebook?

We chunked up vignettes of content and pieces talking about our own products such as AirFloss got a huge reach. Other innovations we featured such as the Brompton bike and the pacemaker really helped us get into people’s emotional space and got them talking. The content generated 76,550 Facebook clicks in total.

How lasting is native advertising’s impact compared to display for example?

Ultimately the core of the campaign was about the content and it lives on in the Telegraph platform even after the campaign closed. There’s still life to be had on that. We can talk about those articles in the future. It’s vital to create content that isn’t faddy and that drives value over a longer period. We need to move away from clickbait and build trust and integrity with the content you have. I’m tired of lists.

Based on this experience, how will you move forward with native in the future?

I don’t think we’ll do something terrifically different. You need to work with someone strongly aligned with your brand values and deliver quality from an audience point of view as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship where you’re lending your brand credibility to them and vice versa.


Mark Ritson: The Fifty Shades of stupid marketing

Mark Ritson

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