It’s rare to read an article about native advertising that doesn’t reference the supposed “controversy” surrounding the marketing tactic. More than with traditional advertising, people fear readers will be misled, put off, or flat out pissed off by the fact that brands can now run ads that conform to the tone and experience of the media where they appear.

At the core, their concern is really this: marketing is about controlling a message. Each type of marketing offers a slightly different level of control.

Public relations is a tactic that gives the brand relatively little control over the message that’s distributed: the information is released by brands into the control of journalists, who serve as gatekeepers for the public.

Traditional advertising, on the other hand, gives marketers almost total control. A magazine can refuse to run an ad, but short of that, there is very little third-party purview. Readers, however, know and accept that about traditional advertising, so no one bats an eye when ad copy claims the brand is the “best,” “most important,” or “only” in its field.

But native advertising represents a weird hybrid of these two things. It has the “paid-for” caveat of the traditional ad but the implied third-party endorsement of a journalistic feature. So people are wondering: doesn’t this essentially give the brand complete control over a medium that used to be unbiased? And won’t brands use that for evil?

The answers are simply: no, and not if the brand wants its ads to be at all effective. As The Atlantic and the Church of Scientology learned (this now classic anti-example will be referenced in 75% of native ad articles, ours included, for the foreseeable future), native advertising must distance itself from traditional advertising tactics, or else.

Because in this digital era, a brand’s “control” over any message ends when it reaches consumers’ eyes and ears. Skepticism, contradictions, and counter arguments travel at the speed of light. If a brand is shortsighted enough to create a propagandist article, and a publication is misguided enough to run it, consumers will take up their own cause and react. Strongly.

Native ad opponents point this out as an example of why native advertising won’t work, but they’re not stopping to consider the fact that brands and publications actually don’t want to anger their audiences and are smart enough, in most cases, to avoid doing so.

It’s like denouncing hammers because carpenters could use them to bludgeon their customers. OK, but do they really have any interest in doing so? In other words, this knee-jerk, fear-based reaction to native advertising as an institution doesn’t give nearly enough credit to marketers, publications, native ad platforms like us, or consumers, for that matter. It also assumes that there are no messages—none whatsoever—that brands can appropriately deliver to consumers via sponsored content. This is, simply put, bananas.

Bad marketers will make bad decisions and reap the consequences, but good marketers will do what good marketers do, which is gauge their audiences and determine appropriate ways to engage with them. That starts with the topic selection.

Choosing the Topic Is at Least Half the Battle

Let’s say an airline wants to run a native ad about how to choose the best airline to use. Even if a publication accepts that piece of content (doubtful), readers will instantly dismiss the information’s credibility. That’s a complete waste of native ad spend.

However, if an airline publishes a native ad in a digital travel magazine on the five things people most commonly leave on the plane, credibility is never a question because the airline doesn’t stand to gain anything by lying about this information[a].

Let’s take it a step further and say the airline shares its top five restaurants for globe-trotting beer lovers. The airline happens to fly to each of the cities where the restaurants are located. Does that make the information more suspicious? Maybe a little, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s a completely subjective topic anyway. It’s more likely to engage beer fans than to spark ire, except maybe from die-hard beerheads who happen to prefer their own subjectivechoices[b].

Now one final scenario: an airline’s CEO publishes a native ad discussing why his airline has been experiencing delays. Is it biased? Of course it is, but readers might still be interesting in hearing what the company has to say on this topic, especially if there’s a healthy amount of mea culpa in the response.

The best way to sum up what native ads should do might be to talk about what they shouldn’t do. They shouldn’t:

·      Try to appear unbiased on a topic about which they have obvious biases

·      Present objectively false information

·      Be promotional without offering any educational or entertainment value for the reader[c]

In other words, native ads work when they fit into the conversation, not push a one-sided agenda. Advertisers are incentivized to make sure they do so.

Upping Native Ad’s Sales Game

While some native ads end with a call to action, many brands prefer not to muddy their nice, soft editorial voices with a hard pitch. This begs the question: if native ads rely on a soft-sell approach, do they still offer value to the brand? Is it worth buying ad space if you can’t push any message you want?

The most obvious answer is that, like its big sister content marketing, native advertising is primarily going to be used as a tool for brand awareness and brand definition, which both play a huge role in the company’s bottom line. Of course, some native ad units include a link to the sponsor’s website, which can also serve as a gentle nudge to action.

However, another good way for brands to maintain a distance between their editorial and sales voices is to purchase a display ad on-page with their native ad content. Display gets a lot of crap (from us as much as anyone), but in this situation, it can actually succeed in taking over the call-to-action role. In fact, display ads have a much higher click-through rate when used this way, so if you’re spending money on display anyway, you might do well to consider pairing them with native. Native ads and display ads set up kind of a good cop, bad cop situation that can be extremely effective.

Creatives “Get It”

If advertisers treat native ads like traditional advertising, they’re going to be disappointed with the results. But this is hardly a revolutionary idea for creatives in the field.

Native advertising is a natural extension of the relationship-based marketing tactics that have become the norm in recent years, between the explosion of content marketing and the widespread adoption of social media. There’s still a place for traditional advertising, which can entertain, inspire, and inform. But there’s also a large place for brands to engage in conversations, education, and the sharing of expertise.

Maybe it comes down to something advertisers understand that native ad opponents don’t—a carpenter knows enough about woodworking to not use a hammer as a screwdriver. And, perhaps more importantly, he certainly doesn’t have the incentive to use it as a weapon.

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