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What’s ‘Native Advertising’ All About, Anyway?

Native advertising: you’ve heard the term, and you’re going to hear it quite often in the months ahead. We haven’t directly addressed it on this blog yet, so here goes:

First: any web surfer will tell you that banner ads (aka “traditional paid media”) are on the way out. They do provide “impressions” or glances, but very few people actually click them.

A debate on the topic within the PR industry has all but resolved itself at this point: integrated or “native” spots created through “brand journalism” are part of the PR/marketing landscape along with “sponsored” tweets and the like. They’re here to stay, and PR teams need to start creating more of them ASAP or they’ll find themselves replaced by other third-party content creators and media buyers. (Here’s a great post on the issue from our friends at Spin Sucks.)

Right. But what does “native” mean, exactly? Well, this Mashable infographic made our heads hurt, so we’ll give you a better example: Check out The Awl, a sort of literary/culture blog that happens to be one of our favorite web destinations. Scroll down the page a bit and you’ll come across at least one post that looks slightly different than the rest (they’re usually hosted on a grey background and filed under the “sponsored stories” heading).

These are stories commissioned and created by brands like Pillsbury, HBO, Samsung, and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. These brands (and the firms that represent them) want to court members of The Awl’s audience, and they came up with a good way to do so: create original content that complements the site’s existing stories.

It’s fairly simple, really:

The brands pay for the site to host the content, so they get they clicks they want while The Awl gets money to continue paying its awesome writers. (The site still has banner ads too, BTW, but you already knew that.) You’ll also notice that three of the four posts we linked to above appear on BuzzFeed, so both sites benefit from these advertisers’ dollars. It’s a nice, mutually beneficial relationship between two media entities.

Think about it: Would you, as a reader, be more likely to click on a Samsung banner ad/video or this cool sponsored post encouraging amateur photographers to enter a contest and nominate their home town as “the most photogenic city in the world”? For us the answer is obvious, so you can see why pretty much everyone agrees that “native” advertising is the way of the future.

Also: This development is a potential boon for PR pros, because we’re all trained to be storytellers, and the key to successful native advertising initiatives is telling a great story. The before-and-after data and audience analytics business is important, but if the story sucks then none of that really matters.

The biggest challenge of the “native advertising” game is twofold:

  • Determining which sites would be best for your client/brand’s content (this is really an issue of demographics)
  • Creating content that actively promotes the brand and also feels like a natural or “native” fit for the target sites (this is where the name comes from)

The second part is the hardest. So how can PR pros get better at this whole native advertising business?

Our advice: Read more stuff–and read it from the perspective of a consumer who is intelligent and doesn’t really care for hard sells and pandering content that screams “SELL! SELL! BUY MY PRODUCT!”–in other words, someone like you! Also: take a creative writing class if you have the chance. If you work for a firm, ask them to expense it–if they follow developments within their own industry then they will understand that it’s all worthwhile in the long run.

Of course we should mention that this form of native advertising does not encompass the entirety of the “paid media” world. Sponsored tweets and user-generated content (like the pics used in these excellent Instagram branding campaigns) are different, and they should be treated differently.

Thoughts? Questions? We know it’s confusing, and we’re up for discussion.

(Oh, and if you want to read a longer and better-written post on native ads from an editor’s perspective, click on this one.)

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