There’s been a spate of articles recently warning publishers, advertisers and the public of the dangers of ‘native advertising,’ the emerging practice by some online publications of paid promotion for branded content.
Critics wonder about the ethics of desperate publishers who allow this content to mingle with traditional editorial material. They warn that it can be expensive and hard to scale for brands. They worry about the effect of this confusion on an unsuspecting public.
To which I say: "All of that is (somewhat) true, and (largely) beside the point."
Let’s put aside the self-interest behind much of the criticism as media planners, agencies and old-school publishers fight to protect the revenue they can still squeeze out of banner advertising. And let’s put aside the many ways that the banner system is broken, although if you want evidence, check out the stats pulled together here. And let’s even put aside early-days examples of native advertising, both good and bad.
Instead, marketers would be well-served to think about what’s driving the impulse behind native advertising in the first place. At it’s most basic, native advertising is content produced by or on behalf of a brand and put in front of readers who (hopefully) consume it just as they would consume any other editorial content. It is a recognition by brands that they can extend their direct relationships with consumers through content. And it is a recognition by consumers that they can demand more of the brands that they care about.
The criticism largely boils down to a rebuke of the content’s quality, trustworthiness or cost. It is not just skepticism of native advertising, but of content produced by brands in general, and what’s more, of consumers’ ability to judge that quality for themselves.
The criticism is useful. Brands should consider it a challenge to improve the quality, utility, and value of their content and to think hard about how that content can build or erode trust with the public. And all that wondering, warning, and worrying should confirm, without a doubt, that things are changing.
In a chaotic media landscape, empowered consumers have shown again and again that they know how to elevate the good stuff and reject the bad stuff. With every status update, tweet and blog post, consumers look more like publishers; and with every "like," RT and brand-name shout out, they serve as something even better than advertising. They are truly trusted sources for their extended networks.
This changes everything. It brings obvious discomfort to agencies, publishers, media buyers, and marketers, but it also presents the opportunity to connect with clients and prospects in new and more sustainable ways.
There’s still much for brands to learn about content development and distribution--about how to best allocate resources, how to manage costs, how to fully leverage social and mobile, how to collaborate; about what forms, content types, and even distribution platforms and paid promotion work best.
Do not allow any of this to stand in the way. The critiques of native advertising are an indicator of change, and probably a trailing indicator, at that. They are the sound of an industry trying to protect a competitive advantage that is already lost. Marketers, do not be deterred. Embrace the content experiment and build the next competitive advantage.