Native advertising - does it make sense?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy June 2, 2013
If advertising is dead then what follows? Scott Karp thinks it is 'native advertising.' It's not a view to which we subscribe. We think there is a better way - at least in the business to business world.

To this observer, most media is addicted to advertising in what increasingly looks like a death spiral as rates tumble in the wake of Google's relentless scooping up of the digital world. However, even Google can't get it right sometimes. On Silicon Valley Watcher, Tom Foremski says:

The more I think about Google's recent introduction of paid channels on Youtube the more significant this event becomes in my mind.

The reason is that it is an admission of the failure of its online ads. It's an admission that revenue splits with video producers can't cover their costs of production -- even for shows that have tens of millions of regular viewers.

I subscribe to some great science and math shows on Youtube yet you barely see an ad on these high trafficked shows. It all points to an inescapable conclusion: Google is shockingly bad at monetizing online content (and not just video content).

Foremski then launches into his favorite topic:

Online advertising, as a major revenue source for nearly all businesses: media, startup, or other  -- is dead. It only works for Google and other large scale Internet platforms such as Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Amazon, Ebay, etc. And for media businesses that harvest their content for free, or have immense traffic such as Mirror Online.

It's all about scale and not quality -- despite Google's pleas for quality content. The simple fact is that quality content doesn't earn more money through online ads. A  click is a click, and so is a unique page view -- on any page. It's a currency that constantly devalues original content and discourages new production.

What is native advertising?

Scott Karp at Publish 2 has an alternative point of view that centers around the concept of 'native advertising.' He argues:

At its best, native advertising gives consumers content that is genuinely interesting, engaging, and useful.  As BuzzFeed has pioneered, the best native ad content can be so engaging that consumers share it with their friends.

Native advertising is a stark contrast to the interruptive advertising model and to display ads that are so uninteresting, useless, and value destroying that “banner blindness” is now universal.

Native advertising truly is NATIVE when consumers can value the content the same way they value editorial content.

In Karp's argument, I suspect consumers might be hard pressed to tell the difference between genuine editorial content and advertising. Karp goes further, lauding BuzzFeed's Social Storytelling Creator Program. AdAge says:

Agencies that take part in the program will receive "accreditation" from BuzzFeed, including a badge they can slap on their website and supporting materials. BuzzFeed won't charge agencies to take part, but does plan to require minimum budgets from the agencies' clients.

The idea is that agencies learn how to take creative ideas and then turn them into stories. I find that to be a disturbing trend. It may resonate well with hard pressed journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living and see a new home in the arms of the very agencies from which they used to consume content.

The problem as I see it comes in the very term used by BuzzFeed - native ADvertising. It almost sounds like an intent to deceive although I doubt that is what BuzzFeed and Karp have in mind.

An alternative view

We think there is a better way but one that may only have limited application in the business to business market.

We believe that readers want unvarnished information that contains genuine insight on the topic under discussion. But there are limitations. With the best will in the world and even with many years' experience, the outsider can never articulate a pure view of what they discuss. In those terms, there will always be inaccuracies and incompleteness.

How then do you overcome this conundrum and especially when good content creators rightly demand to be reasonably compensated? We think it comes down to authentic storytelling rather than storytelling designed to entice a click. Here is a great example from Vijay Vijayasankar who, on his personal blog says:

I am as big a fan of innovation as the next guy – but I firmly believe that we have enough examples around us to indicate that not everyone can or should innovate. Enterprise Software business is largely made up of fast followers and a minority of innovators ( or inventors) . However, industry wide we spend a lot of time trying to democratize innovation – although with limited success. Shouldn’t we know better by now?

It's a compelling opening argument that invites the rader to continue. I said to Vijay this is exactly the kind of thing that our readers would wish to see and asked about the process involved in his producing the piece. The answer might surprise some.

Apparently, he was idly supping tea or coffee when the idea popped into his head. It represents the kind of improvization that often characterizes great content. It's not the sort of thing that everyone can do and it certainly isn't the kind of thing that can be conjured on demand. But it is a legitimate approach.

Why then can't this type of content be considered 'corporate?' Must all content reflect perceived corporate wisdom or convey specific corporate messages? We don't think it has to. We regard such notions as illogical. Companies in the technology space value super smart people. One of the required characteristics is the ability to provide something that equates to original thinking and/or the ability to tease out answers to complex problems. Is there any reason why some of that should not be brought into the public domain, wrapped up into stories that resonate with readers? Why not for example test a theory in the public domain?

Taken one step further, we think that readers want insights that only the vendor can provide or facilitate. They are often in the unique position of knowing more about their customers and their markets than customers themselves. This is especially true when discussing the nuances of functionality as it relates to specific industries.

Some will argue that represents a competitive advantage. Maybe so, but then we argue buyers and potential buyers can always benefit from the experience of others which they in turn will take to themselves in their own way. Jon Reed's collection of Business ByDesign videos provides a case in point. While many of the examples are customers, Reed could not have got those insights without the active help of the vendor.

Can these kinds of content be complementary? We think the answer is an emphatic yes. How it plays out remains to be seen.

Feature image credit: @gapingvoid

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