Learning the 'Native' Language of Successful Sponsored Content

When considering native advertising, publishers and advertisers must first understand these four pillars of sponsored content-relevancy, transparency, value, and trust-to ensure the best chance for mutual profit and success.

Just as there are two sides to every coin, there are two sides to the argument over native advertising's place within the media industry. While many publishers feel this strategy betrays their audience by hiding third-party material among trusted editorial content, advertisers continue to increase spend on branded posts in an effort to generate revenue and expand reach. Yet, while all may seem black and white, overall understanding of the relationships between publishers and sponsors remains gray.

In recent months, native advertising received unexpected buzz when John Oliver tackled both sides of the issue on his HBO program, Last Week Tonight. Oliver analyzed the current state of content creation and native advertising, pinpointing flaws and casting doubt on such practices across the board. Yet, while his argument appeared skewed, segments such as this incite conversations about what constitutes poor native advertising, while also allowing experts to share methods for cultivating successful sponsored strategies. By opening this subject up to discussion, marketers can begin to educate themselves on the intricacies of native advertising and the essential elements that drive continued success.

Before publishers and advertisers within the space can fully grasp native advertising's scope, all must recognize the practice in its basic form. Sharethrough defines native advertising as a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed. Others refer to such media as "sponsored" or "branded" content. Regardless of name, this practice enables publishers and advertisers to develop symbiotic relationships that allow each to profit because such partnerships boost the publisher's bottom line, while also positioning advertisements strategically to generate increased engagement and reach.

Both parties recognize its potential, for one eMarketer report reveals that native ad spending has seen an increase of 29 percent during 2014, and BI Intelligence predicts that sponsored content spend will likely grow to $21 billion by 2018. Further studies conclude that consumers look at native ads more frequently than banner ads (52 percent)-the primary impetus behind the sponsored content boom. Native advertisements also registered 9 percent higher lift for brand affinity and 18 percent higher lift for purchase intent than traditional banner ads, as consumers looked at branded content more than original editorial content (26 percent versus 24 percent). Thus, the numbers indicate that native advertising has the potential to capture readers' attention, encouraging brands to try something new.

"Because consumers have become numb to traditional forms of advertising, often bypassing media all together, advertisers will be forced to find better ways to integrate their advertising into the natural workflow of the consumer," says Marco Hansell, CEO of Speakr. "This doesn't mean just shoving display ads in the same real estate as the consumer's normal content. This actually means adjusting their ad strategy to include well thought out native advertising plans that seek to not only advertise, but also add value to the consumers they're reaching."

Publishers and advertisers now flock toward newsfeed and other in-stream methods to increase awareness. Mark Yackanich, CEO of Genesis Media, explains that advertisers now place sponsored content alongside editorial content, getting their message in front of the specific consumer who might be interested in said material. Ideally, native ads shouldn't resemble traditional ads, for successful sponsors adopt the look and feel of the surrounding editorial content, thereby reaching the audience and maximizing profitability simultaneously, as this less disruptive ad experience promotes alignment and consistency throughout the brand experience.

But, before brands can test the waters and explore sponsored content opportunities of their own, publishers and advertisers must first learn the language of native advertising, as all such content and engagement strategies must be built upon these four pillars to ensure the best chance for mutual profit and success:

  1. Relevancy: One recent study by Edelman Berland and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) notes that 90 percent of online news users cite relevancy as the top factor in sparking interest with regard to in-feed sponsored content. No matter the source, readers will be more receptive to content that reflects the tone and quality of the regular editorial content. Thus, native advertisers must partner with publications that align with their target market to ensure the greatest reach and profitability possible.
  2. Transparency: Those that oppose native advertising cite such strategies for being deceptive in nature, as they believe sponsors wish to trick audiences into reading ad content. Thus, publishers and advertisers must make sure all sponsored posts are clearly labeled as such. Hansell notes that, when done properly, native advertising often becomes an unexpectedly welcome part of the user experience, for readers are more likely to embrace advertorial content that breaks the traditional ad mold.
  3. Value: While relevancy and transparency are integral, native advertising must provide added value to the reader's everyday life. If the audience doesn't gain anything from reading this sponsored content, all efforts to educate potential customers will have been wasted, for readers will view said material as self-serving, thereby bruising both the publication and advertiser's reputation. Instead, sponsors should focus on developing content that shares information over selling their product.
  4. Trust: According to Edelman Berland and the IAB, 81 percent of readers believe brand familiarity and trust are crucial to the success of sponsored content, for audiences are more receptive to advertisements that appear within publications to which they are loyal. Thus, publishers must be sure they don't obscure the fine line between paid content and editorial content, for any discrepancies could call their reputation into question, for trust relies upon relevancy, transparency, and value, as each component fuels reader loyalty and brand engagement.

Overall, successful native advertising and publishing strategies come from an established understanding of the given audience. "In order to preserve customer confidence in the given brand, advertisers must understand their audience and what message will resonate with them," Yackanich adds. "It's all about getting the right message in front of the right customer at the right time. Simultaneously, advertisers must match the specific audiences' message to quality editorial content. If a publisher delivers, it's a good experience for the consumers. The right ad, matched with the right quality content, leads to satisfied consumers who are reading what they care about."

For instance, both The Onion and The New York Times published sponsored content that was clearly labeled as such, alerting readers to the material's true nature, while still remaining in line with each publication's overall tone and quality. Sponsored by H&R Block, The Onion's branded post retained the joke news site's humorous style, presenting an article that aligns with both the publication and the advertising brand.

The New York Times' piece on women in the prison system also aligned with the publication's content quality, presenting readers with an informational, well-researched article that also allowed its sponsor, Netflix, to promote the latest season premiere of Orange is the New Black.

However, poor native ad strategies have the power to harm the reputations of all involved. The Atlantic remains top of mind for most, thanks to its notorious sponsored ad for the Church of Scientology (which was quickly pulled from the Web amid backlash). This article continues to serve as the perfect example of what not to do when it comes to native advertising, for this ad was blatantly promotional and aligned the otherwise objective news source with this controversial organization.

Of course, as time passes, more examples will arise, teaching brands what works and what doesn't. Native advertising has yet to gain secure footing in the world of content creation, but increased investments and experimentation will likely fuel strategies well into the upcoming year. Leaders will likely continue to argue about its merits, as is customary with all emerging strategies, but only time (and audiences) will reveal whether or not native advertising has staying power.