Native Advertising: Do It Right or Don’t Bother

When the great journalist Jimmy Breslin passed away last week, the New York Daily News republished a magnificent column he wrote on the night in December 1980 that John Lennon was shot, telling the tale of the cops who drove a dying Lennon to the hospital. The column was a powerful, poignant example of Breslin’s masterful skill as a storyteller.

Just as noteworthy, to me at least, was the juxtaposition of this remarkable piece of journalism to the collection of Promoted Stories that were stacked neatly underneath the column, featuring provocative images and click-baiting headlines including “Troubled News Anchor Does the Unthinkable On Air,” and “Harry’s Razors: Worth the Hype or Too Good To Be True?”

Those articles fall loosely under the banner of native advertising – sponsored content that lives within the editorial flow of a publisher’s website. But they are not how native advertising is supposed to work. That’s a problem for brands and publishers alike.

The Big Tease
Native advertising continues to be a big tease. There’s plenty of buzz about the growth of native advertising and its potential to better engage easily distracted consumers and business professionals through digital channels. Business Insider estimates that native ads will account for 74% of total U.S. display ad revenue by 2021, up from 56% in 2016. Much of this revenue is no doubt coming from in-feed ads on the mega social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

For B2B marketers, native advertising is more about placing blog posts, articles, or rich media within the editorial flow on publisher websites. That’s where the challenges emerge. While 41% of B2B marketers are using native advertising, just 35% consider native to be very or extremely effective for promoting content, according to the latest benchmarking report from the Content Marketing Institute.

And while investments in native advertising are increasing, renewal rates for native ads were just 33% in 2016, according to MediaRadar.

A Question of Quality
The root cause of these disappointing stats generally boils down to the quality of the content.

Publishers need to do a better job of educating brands about the value of native advertising – and the best practices that make native advertising successful. The stakes are high, because even one irrelevant, poorly written, or overly promotional piece of native brand content can erode audience trust in both the brand that created the content and the publisher that hosted it. Three-quarters of IT decision-makers in IDG’s 2016 Customer Engagement study says it’s at least somewhat challenging to find high-quality, trusted information about enterprise technology. Another study found that 71% of B2B buyers have been disappointed by marketing content.

If you’re not prepared to do native advertising right, you shouldn’t do it at all.

5 Principles of Native Advertising
So what are those best practices? I’m glad I asked:

  1. Tell a good story.
    Breslin is credited as one of the pioneers of “new journalism,” in which writers favored a novelistic approach to telling the news, a departure from traditional just-the-facts reporting. Brand marketers should think about applying the same principles to their own content, complete with antagonists (complicated business challenges, the competition), protagonists (brand as hero), and other literary techniques ranging from tension to humor. Trust me, there’s no law requiring that all B2B brand content must be lifeless and jargon-filled – your audience doesn’t want that, and neither should you.
  1. Be credible.
    Successful brand content reflects the expertise your company brings to the market or industry in which you compete. That starts with an often-overlooked detail: the byline. Every post should have an author’s name, not a generic “By Acme Inc.” byline. Authors can be third-party influencers who are writing about industry trends, or your own subject matter experts sharing their unique perspective. The author should write in her or his own voice – while keeping in sync with the tone you want the brand to convey. Credibility also comes from using independent research and third-party sources to support your points – and linking to those sources. Linking also aids your search and social optimization efforts.
  1. Show empathy.
    Successful B2B companies understand their customers’ pain points and provide practical solutions. That’s a great model for native advertising. Create a series of blog posts that address a specific set of challenges in a way that tells your audience that you “get” them. Then you can explain – at a high level – the best approach to address those challenges. Establishing empathy up front will make decision-makers more attentive to lower-funnel messages about how your particular product or service will help them solve their problems. However …
  1. Don’t pitch.
    Native advertising is not a substitute for display advertising, at least in terms of how you present your message. If a reader clicks on a headline on a publisher’s website, they don’t want to see a product brochure. They don’t want to be taken offsite to a brand’s landing page. They clicked on the headline because it promised to tell them something of interest to them. Native ad content should inform, entertain, or educate – it should not directly promote your products or your company.
  1. Don’t deceive.
    In December 2015 the FTC published detailed disclosure guidelines for native advertising, covering everything from labeling to how the content is designed and presented. The money quote: “no matter how consumers arrive at advertising content, it must not mislead them about its commercial nature.” Seems pretty clear, and yet many advertisers and publishers continue to fall short when it comes to disclosure. A MediaRadar review of more than 12,000 native ad campaigns in 2016 found that 37% of digital publishers are not complying with the FTC’s labeling guidelines. Disclosure should be a no-brainer – you don’t want to try to pass off brand content as editorially independent, because someone will call you on it, and your brand will suffer.

Instead of deception, embrace the opportunity to showcase your brand as a trustworthy source of information and insights through high-quality storytelling. It’s not easy to do, but the payoff is well worth the investment.

What’s your take on B2B native advertising? Share at @roboregan.


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