Forget Native, I’m All In On Branded Content

May 08, 2017

This week I had my 1000th media request to talk about native ads. The problem is, I don’t talk about native ads – native ads are simply a smaller part of a larger advertising ecosystem. Native ads are a format; what I talk about is content. And content is strategy.

Let me explain. Content, and more specifically branded content, is a strategy used by brands to support their upper funnel marketing objectives. Increasing brand awareness, consideration, preference and favorability are all objectives made attainable through effective content programs.

Performance, however, is a different strategy and has been prevalent in digital advertising over the past 20 years. Its metrics – like clicks, CTR, and impressions driven by traditional formats like display advertising and its ilk – focus on lower funnel brand objectives, like driving conversions, purchases and acquisition of customers.

In digital, the formats matter less; brands should be buying the strategy. It’s confusing. If a brand or agency is buying a format, commoditization and price erosion is the expected evolution. Publisher sales teams should be selling the grander vision and strategy around branded content, not the catch-all designation of the native format.

And the truth is, native as a format can be incredibly effective. Brands can use native advertising to promote upper-funnel programs through content or promote lower-funnel performance programs through interactive elements driven by native ads.

I understand why the term “native advertising” had a lot more meaning just a few short years ago. But, what started out as a way to describe a specific content experience (contextual promotions for branded content) is now commoditized as an advertising format.

An integrated, thoughtful, clearly disclosed content experience is far more valuable than an advertisement masquerading as content with a headline and thumbnail layout, and leading a reader to content of dubious quality. Referring to branded content as native is a dis-service to the value it provides.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Outbrain and others commoditize the term native in the market, pitching advertisers and agencies their “native” solutions; more often than not they are simply lower-funnel, performance-based marketing tactics.

Premium publishers offering content solutions meet a completely different marketing objective: upper-funnel, brand-building strategies executed through content. This is reason enough for my adamance that premium publishers stop referring to their branded content solutions as “native”.

Premium publishers selling direct-sold branded content campaigns are the future of revenue in the digital publishing landscape, and they can’t  strive to take their chunk of the $50 billion content advertising industry if they continually convolute both the messaging and execution around formats and strategy.

All Roads Lead Back To Premium Content

Instead, publishers should treat this juncture as an opportunity. Other purveyors of formats are simultaneously facing their own set of troubles. Social platforms face the challenge of becoming political news environments, especially in this current political environment. Compounding this is the ongoing threat of fake news eroding reader trust in several spaces where content appears, be they social networks or pop-up publishers. And ad networks and exchanges are challenged with fake news as well, plus the realization by marketers that there is a great deal of ad fraud occurring within their inventory.

Selling native formats was a quick win a few years ago but – like the ever-changing industry we all exist within – tastes, metrics, appetites and knowledge have all evolved. As it stands, premium publishers provide premium content, coupled with legitimate, quality audiences – the building blocks of stellar content strategy. They themselves are the trusted brands and they too need to evolve from a simple vendor of formats, to a provider of all the tools a brand or marketer needs to execute real branded content strategy. Especially if they want to stake a claim to the $20 billion opportunity in front of them.


JULY 2017

Polar’s Snapshot of Global Branded Content Performance presents the complete picture for major markets and publishers this past quarter.