digital contentNative advertising is a hot topic right now but what is it and who creates the content, the sponsor or the publisher?  Well first, “native advertising is an online advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience” as defined by Wikipedia….basically sponsors pay to have their very branded content featured on a website that normally publishes unbranded, unbiased, reporter-like content like The New York Times, The Atlantic and similar or smaller sites like I mention below.  Many have been debating the pros and cons of native advertising for quite some time now, but I personally am already past the should-we or shouldn’t-we conversation as I already agree with the IAB and Edelman Berland research that says there is great value in native advertising.  So let’s move on and review the burning question of who writes the content: should it come from the brand or should the editorial staff from the publication produce it?

Because native advertising is still a relatively new concept, there really is no set answer on this question as each publication is wading through these new waters very differently, but I do have some experience coming from the brand’s point of view, so let me share a few case studies featuring one client (so same goals and roughly the same messaging for each example below) but different publications (who shall remain nameless) and their approach to native advertising:

Sustainability focused website: I approached a ‘green’ website on behalf of our client because their number of daily/monthly visitors was vast, content was high quality and their readers were very engaged plus their demographic was a young working professional which was very appealing to our client.  The only sponsorship opportunity with the site as per the founder was native advertising and so we jumped in ready to go.  I had a preconceived notion of how to approach sponsored content but they had their own way which was very unique.  They would pinpoint content on their site that fulfilled the following to be used again for native advertising:

  1. The site’s suggested content had already gone live and was successful by their measure (large amount of readers, high engagement….)
  2. The already live content theme was in sync with the brand

They had proposed that once the content was approved by my client, they would repost it with a small mention at the bottom of the post saying it was sponsored content with our clients’ name, logo and a small tag line. The idea behind the approach was that because the content had already proven to be popular within their online community, posting it again, but this time as sponsored content, would almost guarantee success (thousands of views) for our client.

Well, this stopped me in my tracks as I had never encountered this approach before but I was willing to give it a try.  So they sent their first content suggestion which included products that were in the same brand category as our client but a variation that our client didn’t sell so that was a no because we didn’t want to confuse present or new customers.  The editor said they would take that particular product out of the suggested content.  There were about three more edits that had to be made in order for our client to feel comfortable as a sponsor of their content; after all shouldn’t native advertising highlight unique features of the brand paying for the opportunity?  By the time we hit our next and final edit, the content wasn’t the same as what the site’s staff had originally produced and so we didn’t get to test out this native advertising approach because their team didn’t feel the newly edited content would deliver the views because of the edits.  And they still wouldn’t compromise by having our client produce completely new content for them or in partnership with them (my original request) even though we wanted to submit ‘green’ lifestyle unbranded (except for a company mention at the bottom of the post) content that would educate and help their readers grow their eco-lifestyle.

An unwillingness to compromise and to see that newly created sponsored content could be an asset ultimately took this project nowhere.

Mom focused website: Because I personally love this mom website because their daily content is top notch and they have thousands of readers, I was fine when they said that the only way they offer native advertising was for them to create the theme of the blog entry and write it up themselves after we provided some basic brand facts; they were keen on having all content on their site consistent and presented in the same style so I said let’s give it a try.  When they completed the piece, it looked great…awesome images, multiple client mentions peppered throughout the blog entry which ended up being a how-to piece for moms planning a fun party for their kids.  Couldn’t wait for it to go live…you couldn’t go wrong with this one, I thought!  But when it hit online, it was a fail.  No one really interacted with the entry, barely anyone shared it, it fell flat on all of their social media channels and there were no discernible increases of visitors to the client website or social profiles.  Was this because their readers didn’t really engage on a regular basis?  Didn’t want to engage with this content in particular? Was it because the content hovered between being unbranded (written by the site) yet branded (client name was mentioned all through the entry) so the reader didn’t know what to think?

It was a pretty expensive venture for minimal results and no insight from the site’s management, and so we moved on and continued to look for new native advertising opportunities.

Natural lifestyle focused website:  This is another website I admire for their numbers, their passionate mission and super engaged community so we took another chance on the native advertising idea for the same client.  This time we had to provide the content 100%.  We had to get the topic approved by them and all products included in our blog entry needed to be in sync with their site mission but other than that, we were truly a partner in this native advertising opportunity.  We provided content that was entertaining and instructional and not overly promotional and it was hugely successful.  The site made it very clear to their readers that our content was sponsored by putting us in another place on their website but regardless of being sponsored content, they linked to it often throughout their website and in their social channels.  Because their readers were clear that it was native advertising, they were able to move past that quickly and appreciate what our client had to offer in terms of tips and overall suggestions within the product category.  On the flip side, the website wasn’t afraid to present the sponsored content often because they knew from experience how to approach native advertising and because they ultimately understood the value of partnering with a reputable and well-loved brand which they smartly used to their advantage.

This was a successful and fruitful collaboration: the website proved once again to their readers they could by trusted by presenting a well vetted trustworthy brand openly while our client had the benefit of getting their messaging in front of a whole new group of potential customers.  A native advertising win.

Like everything else that is new, there are going to be publications and websites that get it and many who don’t but like everything else that is digital, if you remain flexible, listen carefully and are completely transparent about what you are doing, I do believe success will be had by all!

Image via Flickr @opensourceway

-Valorie Luther, Founder Creative Concepts