Native advertising. It’s going to save publishing or ruin it, depending on who you ask.
All the controversy has content marketers scrambling to prove that content marketing is different. But is it?
If you look for articles pitting content marketing vs native advertising, you’ll find plenty.
To make a point about this particular fight, I want to look to insights from a movie about fighting.
Fight Club might seem like an odd choice. After all, the script isn’t exactly easy on advertising: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy [explicative] we don’t need.”
But, like Fight Club, this will all make sense in the end. Well, most of it anyway. Stick with me.
What’s the fight?
As he put it in Native Advertising is Not Content Marketing: “Too many marketers and agency executives erroneously use content marketing and native advertising interchangeably.”
Adweek concurs, saying content marketing has higher ROI based on a survey of more than 30 content marketing agencies and cost data from more than 600 digital publishers.
Why native advertising?
Right now everyone is scrambling for an alternative to display advertising.
Like in Fight Club, a crisis is coming to a head:
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very [redacted] off.
“In case you haven’t heard,” Jacob Silverman writes in the Baffler, “journalism is now in perpetual crisis, and conditions are increasingly surreal. The fate of the controversialists at Gawker rests on a delayed jury trial over a Hulk Hogan sex tape. Newspapers publish directly to Facebook, and Snapchat hires journalists away from CNN. Last year, the Pulitzer Prizes doubled as the irony awards; one winner in the local reporting category, it emerged, had left his newspaper job months earlier for a better paying gig in PR.”
Mobile is overtaking desktop, and lowering ad rates with it. To combat this, mobile networks have been getting even more obtrusive. Users respond by simply blocking ads entirely.
Silverman goes on. “But for every crisis in every industry, a potential savior emerges. And in journalism, the latest candidate is sponsored content.” Editor & Publisher calls native advertising or branded content the most popular alternative source of income for publishers.
For evidence, we can look at the newly launched Medium for Publishers, which plans to use the native advertising model (plus paid subscriptions) to monetize content for publishers who move over to Medium. Publishers including The Awl and Pacific Standard have already signed on to leave their websites, and their display ads, behind.
What is native advertising?
To break down what “native advertising” means, let’s look at its two parts:
Native = content
Advertising = paid
It’s also sometimes called “sponsored content,” for example by Medium for Publishers.
But the main point is that it’s content that is supposed to look like unpaid content that a marketer pays to place on a platform.
It’s advertising that is supposed to look like editorial.
In fact it can look so much like editorial that the FTC has warned marketers that native ads must be clearly marked as sponsored content so consumers aren’t tricked into believing they’re the same as traditional editorial content.
Forms native advertising take include advertorials and infomercials, two of the oldest forms. Newspapers have been running ads that look like editorial content since just after Gutenberg.
Newer forms include Sponsored Stories on Facebook, Sponsored Tweets on Twitter, or sponsored articles on websites like TheAtlantic.com or The Huffington Post.
The FTC isn’t the only one concerned for consumers. Editor & Publisher huffs, “This form of advertising not only threatens a publication’s editorial independence, it also harms its relationship with readers.”
“Native advertising undermines journalism. If publications allow advertisers to take up space intended for independent journalism and editorials, they relinquish their most precious asset: editorial independence. And that independence is essential if the press is to serve as a watchdog for democracy.”
Writers, editors, and publishers have been selling the lie that advertising doesn’t influence editorial for centuries. But the so-called division between “church and state” is a polite fiction and always has been.
But let’s let them have their lie. For the sake of argument, let’s say that editors never kill pieces or commission pieces to keep the brands that keep publishers afloat happy.
If an editor is immune from the influence of a full-page ad, why aren’t they also immune from the influence of a full-page ad designed to look like editorial? The ad is still designed and paid for by a brand. Don’t all ads take up space that would otherwise be used for independent journalism in order to pay for that journalism?
Despite overblown, irrational and fantasy-based opposition from people representing an industry that finds itself with its back against the wall as a result of its refusal to innovate, native advertising is going nowhere.
E&P points to BI Intelligence research predicting sponsored content’s increasing popularity.
That’s because native advertising is a far better experience for the user than display advertising. Instead of an annoying marketing message getting in the way of your consumption of the content you want, the idea is to provide “valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Does that sound familiar? It’s because it’s from Pulizzi’s definition of content marketing.
What is content marketing?
Pulizzi defines content marketing as “creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
Okay, so what’s the difference?
Adweek describes content marketing and native advertising as having different goals and key performance metrics. “While both want to increase brand awareness, content marketing is also intended to drive conversions. The number-one metric for content marketing is the number of leads generated, where native ads usually depend on engagement metrics and impressions.”
They even have a pretty chart to illustrate this difference:
Curata agrees the difference is in the goals. “The main distinction is that content marketers are aiming to build long-term trust, consistently providing value for readers without asking for anything in return, while most often the goal of native advertising is to have the reader purchase a product or service before obtaining this valuable content.”
They also claim that while native advertising content “may appear to provide value,” providing value is secondary to selling a product or service. “The content of native advertising generally does not have inherent value without the reader buying a product or service.”
According to Kelsey Libert, partner and VP of Marketing at content marketing agency Fractl, the fact that native advertising is paid means that native ads must be “branded,” which may lower editorial syndication and be a real turn-off for social media audiences.
But is that true?
I could not agree less.
I think native advertising gets a bad rap, so content marketers want to distance themselves from it. I get the instinct, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to distort the truth.
First, they’re defining native advertising as content that does not provide value. That’s absurd. Sure, a lot of native advertising does not provide value. That’s called failure, and it happens a lot in marketing.
Native advertising that does not provide value to the user is worse than worthless. Sure, dressing up your ad as content and writing a great headline might get someone to start reading it. But if it’s not valuable, they’re not going to continue. And if you waste someone’s time, they’re going to have a negative impression of your brand.
The goal of native advertising is and must be to provide value to the user.
Similarly, native advertising and content marketing can have any next-action goal. When it comes to what you want a user to do as a result of seeing your content, content marketing can be aimed at lead gen or sales, and native advertising can be aimed at getting email subscriptions.
What determines the desired next action is the target audience’s position in the buying funnel. A person at the top of the sales funnel should see a “subscribe to our newsletter” call-to-action. A person in the middle should see a lead gen CTA. A person at the bottom should see a “buy now.”
Whether the communication is paid or unpaid should have no bearing on the CTA.
Lastly, the fact that native advertising is paid has no bearing on whether and to what extent ads must be “branded.”
In every case, content marketers are seeing correlation and assuming causation. Sure, a lot of native advertising is unhelpful, aimed at sales regardless of audience, and too focused on the brand. But that’s not because native advertising is necessarily any of those things. It’s because a lot of brands are asking for the wrong things (make the logo bigger!) and a lot of advertisers are bad at their jobs.
The real difference
Pulizzi says content marketing “focuses on owning media, not renting it.”
Owning the media means you own the blog/website where the content is hosted.
Joe’s done an excellent job of making a case for the importance of owning your audience instead of renting them from media channels.
I agree with him. The most valuable thing you have as a publisher or brand or writer isn’t your content. It’s your audience. The best reason to own media is that it helps you own your audience. When you move to a platform like Medium or rely on Twitter for traffic, what happens when they pull a Facebook and start charging you for access to your own followers?
However, publishing on your own blog/website doesn’t mean you own your audience if it relies on social or search for traffic.
Where I disagree with Pulizzi is that content marketing necessitates becoming a publisher. If a brand sets up a blog on Medium and publishes useful content that moves an audience down a sales funnel they’re doing content marketing. Where it happens isn’t important. It’s what’s happening that makes it content marketing.
By Joe’s own definition, starting a blog is totally unnecessary to content marketing. Content marketing is “creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”
If you want to own the audience you acquire, it’s emails that you need. And you can gather them straight from native ads without ever cranking up WordPress.
The big reveal
The content marketers are wrong. Content marketing and native advertising are one and the same.
Kinda like Tyler and Jack.
What seems like a crazy troublemaker messing up content marketing’s life is actually just a part of content marketing. Native advertising is just a way to bring content out of its shell, so to speak. To get it to do the things it wouldn’t otherwise do, like get seen by people. It’s one great way to do the “distributing” part of “creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content.”
Even Joe agrees on this point. “Actually, the two should work together.” When you’re beginning your content marketing journey, you probably won’t have enough audience to meet your goals. “Native advertising is a great way to (legally) steal audience and work to drive it to your owned content marketing platform.”
Or, to drive it to your landing page or subscribe form or product page.
Native advertising isn’t going to save or ruin publishing any more than Tyler Durden was going to save or ruin Jack.
And native advertising isn’t an alternative to content marketing. For publishers, native advertising is an alternative to display advertising. For marketers, native advertising is just a way to get content seen by more people.
Advertising is simply how brands sponsor content. Native advertising doesn’t change that, or even impact it much, directly.
The way native advertising impacts publishing is that it portends what will actually kill publishing. Brands are currently learning how to produce content people want to consume themselves, without having to go through publishers. Brands are beginning to create their own content and use platforms like Medium and Facebook to distribute it. And publishers are realizing that maintaining a media property is expensive and they can’t compete with the audience, or analytics, of a major social platform.
In short, platforms will replace traditional publishers and content marketing will replace advertising. Native advertising is mostly a transition phase.
What do you think? Am I right, or is Joe Pulizzi? Let me know in the comments.