Native Advertising Is The Future, But It Means Nothing

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 12, 2015
Everybody is talking about native advertising as the future, but it’s a meaningless term that spans two totally different concepts. How about we define it properly? 

When judging a case about pornography in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart  famously declared that the concept was hard to define, but  "I know it when I see it." Native advertising remains the opposite, a loose catchall for the 4th realm, the land that lies between media, creative and digital agencies.

We do the same thing with content marketing, the two most vague words in all of advertising glued together with a bit of hope and mystery.  Yet content marketing as a term worries me less. It’s also a 4th realm but thematically it’s clearly about entertainment, earned media and sharability: branded entertainment gone wild.

Native is more problematic because it spans two totally different, contradictory dynamics:

1) Site-specific advertising. In the olden days all ads were site-specific, since the notion of standard advertising didn’t exist. There were no supply specs, no IAB units;  everything was made to order. This tradition continues today, as when Twitter unveils a new ad format that allows direct shopping or when a magazine moves its type setting around a specific piece. This is native advertising viewed as custom units,  made specifically for a certain context. The ads are production-heavy, site-specific, more thought-through and thus more powerful, expensive and premium.

2) Stealth advertising. The other fork of native advertising is a version of content marketing. This grouping covers advertiser-funded content, branded entertainment, advertorials, suggested content, co-authoring. It lays its claim to the native tag because such content is typically produced as a one-off -- but  it’s totally different from custom advertising in every way. This is the world of Forbes’ brand voice, the ghastly, cheap, “you may also likes” from Outbrain and Taboola, the new 23 Stories from Conde Nast.



The key dynamic of this content has nothing to do with its specificity to a site, but is instead based on the notion of advertising hiding as content. It’s about viewers digesting and getting value from branded material. It's stealth-like and ideally seductive.  At best, it’s the dream of content that imparts brand values while delighting and entertaining; at worst, it’s trickery to the depths of a lesser Web. 

I’m a total believer that native advertising will become even more important in the future. I think advertising purpose-made for specific contexts will be massive. Ads will move into the notification layer, will become API-fed units, will appear in maps, wearables -- but we must not call this native.

I also think ads as entertainment, with strong editorial integrity and high production values, will provide value for people and revenue for media owners -- whether as product placement or sponsorship, branded authored content, endorsements or one of the million other types of advertising that's not advertising.

But these techniques have been around for years and they already have names. The former is called custom builds, the later is called branded content. So why don’t we just use those terms again?

The future of advertising is native -- but that word itself needs to die. It means nothing.

2 comments about "Native Advertising Is The Future, But It Means Nothing".
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  1. Terry Heaton from Reinvent21, February 12, 2015 at 12:33 p.m.

    I couldn't possibly disagree with you more. There is nothing even remotely ahead that resembles in any way the dinosaurs of the past. This commentary is a good read, but mass marketing is (almost) a dead horse. Why anybody would want to resurrect it is beyond me. Content marketing is advertising without the sell. It is VERY different than a tradition "ad." Please.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 12, 2015 at 1:47 p.m.

    Snake oil. Pure snake oil.

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