Gina Lovett
Gina Lovett 4 March 2014
Categories Advertising, Content

Is native advertising more than an old girlfriend in a new dress?

Native advertising is a new take on the old idea of advertorial. Media owners like it, but does it work, what are the rules and how should its effectiveness be measured?

By Gina Lovett


One thing I’ve learned about digital media over the years is that very rarely is the latest trend an innovation. It’s usually, as Twitter users put it, ‘an old girlfriend in a new dress’. That’s exactly the case with native advertising.


Native advertising is a new take on the age-old idea of advertorial. The difference today, according to former Association of Online Publishers chairman Lee Baker, is the shift that the ‘digital disrupters’ such as Facebook, Twitter, Forbes and Tumblr have catalysed. All of these have put advertising on a par with non-commercial content in terms of format, environment and tone of voice. It’s this approach, now manifesting in various forms across more traditional publishing sites, that’s becoming known as native advertising.


Contrary to what some think, native advertising isn’t defined by content type – it can be text, video or image – but is such that it blends into site content, rather than an ad randomly filling a space on a website with a jarring tone of voice. It runs the gamut of ad propositions from Facebook Promoted Posts to Forbes’ Brand Voice and Tumblr’s Radar.


“Native advertising stems from the ad systems of major internet players such as Facebook and Twitter,” says Angus Wood, head of earned media at agency iProspect.


With the ‘digital disrupters’ commanding significant online ad revenue – Twitter’s ad revenues are forecast to hit $1bn next year; Facebook’s ad revenues hit $1,329m in Q4 2012 and half of Forbes’ total ad revenues came from digital last year for the first time ever – it’s little surprise that others want to capture this Midas touch. For media owners it’s proving a way to make advertising more valuable.


According to Stephen Edwards, Hearst Magazines UK digital sales director, concern about the quality of advertising and ad blindness among consumers has helped kick-start the rise of native advertising.


“We don’t want to be involved in that perennial race to the bottom that’s based on volume. Our duty to advertisers is to focus on quality,” he says.


For Andrew Sanders, director of digital brand partnerships at IPC Media, native advertising centres on the brand partnerships that the business does. Interest has grown over the last 18 months, with uptake from global brands including Diet Coke and Tesco.


“It’s commercial editorial with the same tone of voice as editorial,” he says.


There’s ample reason why brands want this – more kudos and more credibility. Advertisers have always wanted a more equal voice in content creation. So now they’re getting this, how effective is it?


According to Bruce Daisley, director of Twitter UK, the return on investment for brands advertising on Twitter through Promoted Tweets, for instance, is ‘well proven’. In spring the team shared research it did with Deloitte demonstrating how a 10 per cent increase in positive Tweets in the games market was four times more effective than a 10 per cent increase in above-the-line media spend.

Now research consultancies’ predict that native advertising will generate $4.57 billion in 2017 in the US, up from $1.63 billion in 2012.


As with any new trend, however, there is a need for clarity of definition and, of course, best practice. After definition, one of the hotly contested issues is that of scale. Native advertising is inherently more customised than traditional display ads, making it harder to produce in volume.

Paul Adams, Facebook former head of brand design, has a good response to this. Rather than reaching as many people as possible, or gaining as many fans as possible, he says, “the goal is to engage with the maximum number of people who actually care about your brand”. He adds: “[On Facebook] if you show content to people who really do like your brand and are interested, then you will see really good engagement and that will spread and be shown to more people. It is like a virtuous positive cycle of people saying “it’s good content”.”


Edwards from Hearst backs this, saying: “Scale is not the issue. The value proposition is tailored to an environment to combat ad blindness. When you move away from tailoring, you move back to ad blindness, and it defeats the purpose.”


Getting the content right is also vital, especially in maintaining consumer trust. The line between culturally or media-contextual content and a blatant sales pitch is a very fine one. Not only does it spell danger that the consumer might feel tricked, it might mean the application of inappropriate direct response measurements, a move which can also be misleading for media owner and brand.


Because native advertising is an emerging practice and formats are defined by their environment, there’s little standard in the way of measurement. What media owners and marketers agree on is that softer metrics developed around engagement, chiming with those of editorial, are better indicators of success. These can include bounce rates, dwell time, shares, favouriting, retweets, affinity scores and recommendation.


Developing native advertising content – a topic worthy of an article in its own right – is usually far more resource-intensive than brands anticipate. Most media owners with their own editorial teams agree that these teams should set the rules and oversee copy for editing and final sign off. The actual content can be done by anyone along the way – the brand, the ad product team, freelance copywriters. Sanders adds: “It’s the editorial team, though, that understands the storytelling process and how to be impartial.”


Despite some of the pitfalls and the content resources required, it seems that native advertising – as an approach and way of thinking – is here to stay. Publishers from IPC Media to Hearst are developing native advertising products, while corporate deals such as Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr is pushing investment that direction. It’s the brands, however, that will decide whether this old girlfriend’s new dress is more than just the emperor’s new clothes.


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