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Without Storytelling, Native Is Just Advertising As Usual

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It’s not the technology but the story that matters. The story you pick changes everything. - Astro Teller, director of Google X at Cannes Lions 2013

While native advertising is (and should indeed be) native, it doesn’t have to be advertising as usual. In fact, effective native advertising isn’t advertising at all. Or maybe it’s all just advertising. If that confused you, then you’re not alone.

Native advertising—an attempt by publishers to infuse advertising into, or create advertising that poses as, content—has become big news in 2013. My definition is just one interpretation of the idea of content-as-advertising, since there’s fierce debate over what native advertising actually is and whether it is doing a disservice to the reader, brand, publisher or all three. Mashable just announced its version of native advertising called “Social Lift” which, according to Mashable, “allows brands to amplify their social assets in the stream on Mashable’s website.” You can probably find more articles about the trouble defining native advertising than you can about good examples of native advertising. Go ahead. Try it.

Many current examples of native advertising have the same feel as the conflict between immigrants and Native Americans. Granted, brands may be moving away from more interruptive and useless means of advertising, which is good for everyone, but much content that is considered native advertising is simply traditional advertising (a.k.a. an advertorial) in sheep’s clothing. I envision the indigenous content (articles written purely for the benefit of the audience) becoming increasingly uncomfortable, retreating below the fold as the immigrants (self-serving articles with barely any value to their readers) take the top-of-the-page position. Meanwhile readers, watching all of it from afar, start to have trouble discerning what belongs there and what doesn’t; what’s manipulating them and what’s there to simply educate or entertain.

I’m not saying that native advertising doesn’t work or can’t be trusted to be a valuable piece of content marketing. In fact, I’ve written about how Buzzfeed has done a good job of working with brands to create native advertising that, for the most part, is actually content worth reading. And there are some other interesting examples.

In an article on PandoDaily, Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide considers Palladium Boots’ Detroit Lives documentary with Johnny Knoxville from 2010 a great example of native advertising (I highly recommend it as well). But if it’s on a brand website, is it still native advertising or just advertising? Or is it neither and just a film? Can it be all three? And does it really matter?

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If the definition of and rules around native advertising are still unclear, what’s a brand to do? It’s not fair for me to simply tell you to forget about other channels and create and publish your content on your own channels, because if your content is good enough, audiences will consume and share. But there are a few things to keep in mind before you go native:

1. Make sure the content is true to your brand’s story. This can’t be overstated. Creating branded content that looks and feels like a publisher’s standard content can increase awareness (compared to being adjacent to the desired content, like a banner ad), but that doesn’t mean it will generate the results you desire. The content may have nothing to do with your brand’s story and simply crowbar your branding into it. No matter the content type or who writes it, the content must convey at least a chapter of your brand’s story.

2. Make sure the content is valuable and shareable. In every article I write, I always ask myself if I’d share this article, and if so, why? Depending on the publisher, your brand will have varying degrees of input on the creation of the content. Especially if the content is created entirely by the publisher, make sure it has a redeeming quality. Is it funny? Is it useful? Is it entertaining? Does it teach the audience something? How will sharing the article make the reader feel? Smarter? Funnier? On the cutting edge? If the content isn’t shareable, then readers not only will ignore without taking action, but they may voice negative opinions about your brand because it interrupted their content consumption experience.

3. Make sure it’s not content for content’s sake. I’m obviously a huge fan of content creation for brands. Gary Vaynerchuck proclaimed that he’s tripling down (because doubling down wasn’t enough) on content this year for his own brand. But if you’re paying for a piece of native advertising, make sure it fulfills a specific and targeted goal. Is it awareness? Is it purchasing? Make it work for your brand (but follow the first two rules too!).

The definition of native advertising will continue to evolve, as will the rules surrounding the publishing of advertising posing as native content. It has to. But it doesn’t really matter how the definition and rules change, because no matter what, the only advertising that will truly work in an age where audiences refuse to be interrupted is content that the audience cares about, will seek out and will share with its own audiences. It’s the content that provides value: content relevant to a certain platform (produced by a brand, a publisher or otherwise), with a great story and created for the audience’s benefit.

Without that, it’s just advertising as usual.

Jon Thomas is the communications director at Story Worldwide, editor-in-chief of Post Advertising and a frequent contributor to Say Daily. Follow him on Twitter @Story_Jon

[Image credit: Palladium Boots, Detroit Lives]

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