Back in 1951, Hallmark made a mark with its Hall of Fame television programs, which still air today. The award-winning series is arguably one of the earliest examples of "native" advertising-advertising that is secondary to the message being delivered, but impactful through its association with valued content. Since the 1950s, advertorials and product placements emerged, and, as the internet and online commerce took hold, Amazon blazed trails by serving up book recommendations to users based on their previous purchases and online behaviors.
Today, these sorts of activities-designed to deliver advertising content, online or via mobile devices, to consumers who have demonstrated their potential interest in the product or service-are known as native advertising. The practice lives on a continuum between "annoying" and "useful," depending on the perspective of the consumer. The goal for marketers is to land somewhere closer to the useful end of the spectrum.
"The whole idea of trying to influence opinion through content that's been created by a brand or marketing is not new," says Larry Weber, author of the recently released The Digital Marketer, chairman and CEO of the marketing services agency Racepoint Global, and founder of Weber Shandwick. But, he adds, in the past, "We at least had to put on it that this was an advertisement." Today, he says, the delivery of advertising content has become somewhat murky and less direct, and that can be problematic.
"Do people want great content to help them make decisions on everything from buying to advocacy? Sure. But they don't want things in their face, and that's the mistake that I think a lot of marketers are making-they're interrupting the experience, and I think that's wrong." There can certainly be value for those who get it right.
The online marketing firm HubShout found, in a survey of 425 randomly sampled internet users, the following:
- 72.8% of internet users who have read sponsored content believe it has equal or greater value as nonsponsored content on the same website.
- 66.1% of internet users find sponsored links to suggested content at the end of articles to be the most helpful form of native advertising.
- 66% of internet users presented with sponsored articles and banner ads said they prefer clicking on sponsored articles over banner ads.
Patrick Quigley, CEO of the advertising technology firm Vantage Media, says native advertising "is the new black-it's there; it looks good; and it's not going out of style any time soon." Vantage Media's research supports HubShout's findings. Still, he points out, not all native advertising is "smart native." There are standards, he says, that should be considered by marketers to leverage native advertising to meet their goals. These include the following:
Informative content. "A reason why native advertising carries a negative perception may be from the days of the in-your-face advertorial," Quigley says. "If the content is useful and presents something your audience didn't know before, they're likely to trust it and refer back."
Continuous improvement through testing. Quigley recommends testing for everything from tone to length to layout. In addition, he says, "consider factors like time of day and other events happening in the world" when laying out campaigns.
The use of analytics to prove results. "Native advertising is expanding into new areas of media and there are stats to prove it's having [an] impact, down to where and with whom," says Quigley.
As Hallmark's success illustrates, the content delivered through native advertising must be high-quality and must be valued by the audience to achieve desired results. The days of "content mills" are waning. Mark Howard, chief revenue officer for Forbes Media in New York, says Forbes was a very "early pioneer in this space, long before it was referred to as native advertising." Its approach was to invite marketers who had expertise to become part of the content experience on Forbes.com. Users value this content, he says.
"Research continues to validate that readers of these websites are, number one, aware that the content is there because a marketer paid to place it-and, two, have strong feelings that the content is valuable to them." That, he says, "is only going to continue to drive all of this forward in a very positive way."
He's not alone. The "State of the Media 2014" report from the Pew Research Center's Journalism Project indicated that BIA/Kelsey estimated that native advertising revenues reached $2.3 billion in 2013 (up from $1.6 billion in 2012) and projected that revenues would reach $4.6 billion by 2017.
In 2013, Forbes teamed up with IPG Media Lab and conducted a study of the effectiveness of branded content. That research indicated that branded content provides better brand recall than display ads. In addition, it was found that pairing display with branded content serves to boost awareness.
In addition to quality, transparency is imperative, says Weber. "I think it's terrible and immoral to try to hide the fact [that it's advertising]," he says. "The future of marketing is about transparency and honesty and truth." If the content is high-quality, people don't care if someone paid to deliver it, says Weber.
Howard agrees that content must be high-quality to achieve desired results. At Forbes, he says, a brand producer team that reports to him is set up with the same structure as the editorial team-but there is a wall between the two parts of the business. "They've got a managing editor, they've got the same tools, the same skill set. All of them were hired from other newsrooms, or our newsroom, to take this brand producer role. And they really work to optimize headlines, social, search and basic copywriting so that our brands feel like they're being supported with the same level of support that anybody would who writes from an editorial perspective, with the clear understanding that everybody's jobs and roles are to be on one side of the house or the other."
Transparency rules, but content, despite the venue or method used to deliver it, is still king, as Bill Gates told us back in 1996. For content managers and marketers, the ability to provide value to an audience will keep them on the right end of the continuum between annoying and useful.
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)