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What is native advertising, and what does it have to do with content marketing?

Native advertising and content marketing are similar. But they're not the same thing.

Appearing as promoted listings, branded content, commercial telecasts and – increasingly – sponsored content, native advertising is a creature of many forms. While it can be a valuable supplement to content marketing, the two are not interchangeable.

As Forbes wrote late last year, we find ourselves in the ‘skip generation’ – where individuals tend to “view the vast majority of online ads as exclusionary, rather than welcoming; as irrelevant and cumbersome, rather than desired and organic”. This has implications for marketers at every level. According to a 2016 report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) for instance, 27% of Australians are using adblocking services – an amount higher than previously estimated.

Native advertising is one proven effective means for managing this widespread behaviour trend. Various studies have predicted native advertising will drive 74% of all ad revenue by 2021, and by 2020 account for 63.2% of all mobile display advertising. With reputable publishers such as The Guardian, The New York Times and Facebook seeing their own opportunities to gain from this content-focused, ‘pay-to-play’ arrangement, users can expect to see a lot more of it in coming years.

Native advertising defined

But what is native advertising? In essence, it’s when a brand pays to publish on a third-party channel, where the content is designed to blend seamlessly into the host’s environment in both its look and its feel. This can be a promoted tweet on Twitter, a suggested video post on Facebook, a sponsored snippet in an email newsletter, a branded article or a playlist on Spotify. There is no limit to the form it can take – indeed, futurists are already imagining it as the “final frontier” for virtual reality.

What makes native advertising different from traditional advertising is its non-disruptive quality. As Joe Pulizzi writes over at the Content Marketing Institute, “you aren’t pimping a product or service,” – indeed, if it wasn’t clearly labelled as non-editorial content, the consumer would think it was just another natural part of the channel.

It doesn’t stick out, in other words; it belongs. If the ad unit is in the form of an article or video, there may be a few call-to-actions, but these are typically subtle and unobtrusive – perhaps in the form of an article footnote, a casual brand mention, or product image placement.

As yet, there are no rules around whether it’s the brand, the publisher, an intermediary agency who creates the content, or a combination thereof. Degrees of editorial control will vary from case to case, with no clear regulation standards on labelling either – an industry scenario which makes questions of transparency, ownership and copyright troublingly muddy.

There is, however, a light on the horizon. While the United States and the United Kingdom are leagues ahead when it comes to labelling consistency and transparency, progress is still being made on our own shores. Steps are being taken by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in particular, which last month launched the Native Advertising Taskforce. Co-chaired by Susie Bayes, Brand Partnership Director of Guardian Australia, the initiative aims to make native advertising easier to understand and navigate for both advertisers and brands. You can watch a short video featuring Bayes in discussing the Taskforce aims with IAB CEO Vijay Solanki below.

Why it isn’t the same as content marketing

Native advertising and content marketing are both oriented towards being useful, relevant and targeted towards reaching audiences more tactfully. Because of this, they are sometimes conflated. But they’re not the same thing.

There are several critical points of distinction. Firstly, content marketing is focused on owned media content. Delivered at regular intervals on a brand’s own channels – on social media, through newsletters, content hubs, perhaps sent through the mail as a custom print magazine – it is a means of cultivating and nurturing brand loyalty over the long term and for buyers at each stage of their journey. It is also measurable – so that brands can fine-tune their strategy over time by looking at performance metrics. Content marketing also isn’t a campaign-based strategy, but an ongoing business philosophy, with user-centricity at the heart.

Native advertising, on the other hand, is always a paid partnership between brand and publisher, where the former is leveraging the channel of the latter so as to reach an already existing audience – think borrowed, rather than owned. Often, brands must compromise, adapting their content so as to comply with the standards and style of the publisher. Without an industry standard for native advertising metrics, the two parties must negotiate how performance data is to be shared. What’s more, where content marketing is consistent in its content type, channels, and publishing frequency to be considered as such, native advertising doesn’t need to be published at consistent intervals for it to work. It does, however, always have to be aligned to a documented strategy.

How native advertising and content marketing come together

So, native advertising and content marketing aren’t the same thing. But this doesn’t mean they’re mutually exclusive. Native advertising can work well in concert with content marketing as an amplification or distribution strategy component.

There are two main ways they can come together. The first would be if you are a content marketer wanting to reach more audiences or increase traffic to your site. Negotiating a sponsored post listing on social media or a recommended widget spot on a partner site, you’ll be using native advertising to amplify that piece of content.

The second instance is when brands approach publishers for paid placement of their stories. Say, for example, you’re a brand with only a small to moderate subscriber list and are looking to build awareness among your key demographic. Alternatively, perhaps you’d like to lift the authority of your brand by showcasing thought leadership on a certain topic on a respected platform. Putting out a piece of high quality, relevant content on a platform that aligns well with your brand and is a regular pit-stop for a large number of your prospects is a great way to achieve these goals.

Take Oracle’s recent partnering with HRM Online as a sponsored content campaign (full disclosure: HRM is a Mahlab client). The computer technology corporation judged the human resources content hub to be a great match with its own brand identity with a sizeable overlap in the target audience. A new section was added to the website, which hosted content written by Oracle and edited by our agency team to align with the HRM style. To ensure full transparency for readers, content was clearly labeled with the Oracle logo and a ‘Sponsored Content’ disclosure. Amplified by a daily enewsletter sent out to subscribers, individual views of the section increased by 573% compared with figures prior to sending, with time on page increasing by over two minutes, and shareable content exploding by 1171%.

Native advertising, then, can be a powerful tactic for content marketers to engage audiences at the top end of the sales funnel. It has its objectives in the early nurturing of those who might want to know about a brand – who you are, what you stand for, and how you’re positioned in the industry you operate. As part of a content marketing strategy, it can work a treat.

The world’s most respected media companies are collaborating with brands to create sponsored content.
If you’re willing to embrace content-led advertising the changing landscape is an exciting challenge.
It’s the ultimate goal for content marketing. Turn your content into a revenue source.
Pharmaceutical Society of Australia