Those in the industry who cringe at the term “Native Advertising” (myself included) have spent enough energy focusing on the negative experiences with the format. While the industry’s current obsession with the native ad may wane, we must accept that the format is going to stick around and start offering audiences better “native” experiences. Successful native ads will make audiences want to engage because the content relates to their interests, without being misleading or annoying. Achieving this balance is not always easy or successful, but it’s possible to attain when you know what you’re doing.
Integrated ads should be the first step
Digital video advertising creates new opportunities for brands to reach highly targeted audiences, but the medium can also work to distract advertisers from the core proposition, which is to deliver the right message to the right audience in the right context. Too often, I see advertisers dive head first into online video content production when they really should be just getting their feet wet with the format. Online video itself is still relatively nascent and many advertisers are taking on video advertising for the first time. Often, native ads just don’t hit the right chord with audiences or even get seen in the first place. (The advertisers behind the Orbitz Dirty Shorts campaign had probably hoped for more than 378,000 views on YouTube.) And we’ve all seen our fair share of native ads where the advertiser is clearly trying too hard to disguise a blatant ad as content. Before venturing into content production (which adds a whole new layer of “producer” skill sets), my advice to any advertiser would be to start with integrated ads (or sponsorships) and learn from the successful strategies of established producers.
Integrated ads can provide the engagement and creativity advertisers seek through native advertising, and will often serve as the more cost-effective and simpler approach. Instead of having to concept and create content from scratch and hope that the content finds an audience, integrated sponsorships allow advertisers to tap into the known audiences of producers who are respected for their quality content. For example, a food brand might have more success partnering with a producer of a well-known cooking show than if the advertiser created a show around the brand itself. (Are enough people really watching this Cap’n Crunch Show?) Producer/publisher Scripps Networks does a good job of providing the space for its channel advertising partners to engage audiences in this manner. At the time of writing this article, if you head to the video section on HGTV.com, you’ll see a banner ad and pre-roll for garage door company Clopay well-matched with the home improvement videos on the site. But beyond this simple strategy, Scripps and the advertiser could go even further. Why not curate collections of videos related to the advertiser? A food brand, say a hot sauce company, could have a pre-roll and banner ad come before videos that call for hot sauce as an ingredient or even the brand itself. Often, it will make more sense for advertisers to come before relevant existing content where they relate to what the audience is watching rather than try to serve as the main content.
At an even deeper level, many brands will find success by partnering with producers to create native-like experiences. Matching a brand to the most relevant online video channel can be daunting with the talk of programmatic buying being the end-game for video. Achieving this requires brands to discover more relevance across the growing list of video publishers and the thousands of weekly produced videos. But, once a brand finds its sweet spot with a producer whose content is even slightly more relevant than what’s available through an exchange and a publisher who shares a common audience, the partnership can become more native. Understandably, there is no easy way to identify what works and what doesn’t, but there are tools to help with this. For instance, OneScreen’s Media Graph is building the world’s first B2B2C graph that will help identify which businesses should work together based on the data gathered about them and their respective audiences.
The long-standing relationship between Home Depot and the Weather Channel, which distributes Home Depot sponsored content across cable and Weather.com, serves as a great case study. For example, visitors of Weather.com’s Home Improvement section will find videos relating to indoor and outdoor home improvement projects, energy efficiency tips, and home maintenance tips. Not only are these videos well-matched with a Home Depot banner, but all of the videos offer seasonal home improvement advice (e.g., prepping your trees for spring or recovering from a disaster) from real home improvement personalities with the Weather Channel’s logo in the right corner of every video and a Home Depot bumper at the end. The Weather Channel provides Home Depot with a relevant audience as well as brings its expertise in actors, film crews, and other resources to the table.
When to go native
Once an advertiser has truly wrapped its arms around integrated advertising and is looking to engage audiences with content relating to the brand, then I believe they are ready to tackle the challenges of native advertising. Successful native advertisers will go into the format with the following criteria in place:
- An understanding of goals: The purpose of a native ad should be to engage audiences with the brand’s content for its informational or entertainment value. Too often, advertisers go into native advertising with the wrong mindset. If the sole purpose of the ad is to sell a product (and is doing so blatantly at worst), stick to the more traditional formats that have already proven they work.
- Clear audience expectations: It should be clear to your audience how they should interact with your content. Native ads should make them want to watch, share, and talk about your videos much like they would about a good TV show or funny YouTube clip. If your audience is confused about whether to treat your video as an ad or content, then your efforts have been wasted. Too often, I see videos where it’s awkwardly unclear whether what I’m watching is an ad or content. And, what’s worse, is that I’m starting to see more 15 and 30 second spots running in units where audiences normally experience “native advertising” that is much longer. What the heck is going on there? You can make it clear that the content is tied to your brand while providing real meat to the content. That’s where you’ll earn a longer-term ROI from you’re initiatives. Intel and Toshiba did a great job of this with their The Beauty Inside campaign, a “social film” broken up into episodes surrounding a character named Alex who wakes up every day as a different person. Throughout the story, Alex interacts with his Toshiba laptop, but the product placement is subtle and actually adds to the intriguing story line. Audiences can take the engagement event further by auditioning to play Alex on the campaign’s Facebook page.
- A real distribution strategy: Native ad distribution is all too often left to “native ad networks” who push these units out to publishers who have very little relevance and bill on an expensive CPV. It’s not a bad idea to pay for performance, but maybe “performance” isn’t just the view anymore either, but the earned media your brand can earn from that view. If you’re trying to do more than distribute a 15 or 30 second ad spot that is click-to-play, then maybe you need to start distributing your “content” like real content companies do. Subway did this well, partnering with Content and Co. and James Widdoes, director of Two and a Half Men, to create 4 to 9ers for Hulu, which generated over 5 million views and became one of Hulu’s most popular short-form comedy series on its first run. Of course the technologies they needed to make this successful were far beyond a YouTube player, but there are companies that serve this need.
Clearly successful native advertising is not impossible. Brands, such as Red Bull (Stratos), Intel, and Pepsi (watch Jeff Gordon’s “Test Drive”), have shown us how effective and engaging a good native ad can be. Advertisers just need to go into the medium with the right tools and mindset to pull it off.