Native Advertising, Explained: Cannes Edition

Guest post by Andrew Graham of Clear.

This is a guest post by Andrew Graham, co-founder of Clear.

WPP, Daily Mail, and Snapchat have partnered to create a new company that will, in the words of London’s Guardian, “cash in on the rise of native advertising.” WPP CEO Martin Sorrell put it even less elegantly, stating, “I believe in eating your own children.”

The deal is bound to renew focus on how earned, owned and paid media continue to evaporate into one consistent fog. For PR pros who need a refresher, here are some basics of native advertising and a bit about what the three companies probably saw that led to the partnership.

Defining native advertising

Native advertising is the practice of making an ad on a platform resemble whatever content the user is there to see or read. A native ad on a social network would appear in a user’s social stream alongside updates from their friends. A native ad on PRNewser would look like this post, which isn’t an ad, instead of a banner or a pop-up deliberately separated from all the stuff Patrick, Shawn and Tonya write.

Making paid content “native” to the rest of the platform in question isn’t exactly new. Advertorials existed far before today’s digital environment, and they even created a bit of demand for niche marketing firms to create news-like ads for print and broadcast media.

Many PR pros–even digitally savvy ones–confuse content marketing with native advertising. They’re different. Think of content marketing as the message and native advertising as the container it’s delivered in. Content marketing is the larger strategy and native advertising is one way of executing on it.

A matter of transparency

There hasn’t been a ton of discussion about native advertising from a design perspective, and that’s a problem.

The consensus is that digital publishers should give readers some kind of cue to know they’re reading content that’s paid instead of earned. But advertisers do want native ads to look like editorial; that’s the entire point. Obviously, an ad can’t be indistinguishable from editorial and separated from it at the same time. It either has to look the same or not look the same as the editorial.

One issue is how these visual cues will vary from publisher to publisher. Who’s honestly trying to separate the two, and who’s selling their readers out? At what point in the process distinguishing an ad from the editorial does the ad cease to be native?

It would be great if it were impossible to see or read a native ad without first knowing it was paid and not earned, but the likelihood of this happening all at once across the industry is slim to none.

Publishing’s structural problems

Native advertising gives publishers a new product to sell. But it doesn’t solve the structural problem with digital publishing: instead of publishers selling content to readers, they are selling readers to advertisers.

Long-term, the growth opportunity for publishers is in surveillance, not sponsored content. Advertisers have an unlimited appetite for information and analytics on users; publishers have consistent and repeated access to those users. This helps business observe consumers in new and inventively intrusive ways.

Native advertising as a tactic also isn’t inherently connected to publishing. Social-native ads appear alongside regular updates in users’ feeds, and they’re one of the bigger way that social media companies are monetizing their users. Native advertising will occur in whatever digital environment eyeballs seek out.

Automation is next

Right now, native advertising is (oddly) not automated in the same ways other advertising inventory is. But that’s beginning to change.

Programmatic technology–software that allows advertisers to buy and fill large amounts of ad inventory on an automated basis–will soon sell native ad inventory en masse, which will then give large companies the ability to scale native ad campaigns and better analyze their impact on sales.

Advertisers need the native ads they pay for to be relevant, at a contextual level, to a user’s browsing history and online behavior. Users shouldn’t see a native ad for anything they wouldn’t see any other digital ad for. So targeting is key — and managing native ads on a programmatic basis as a matter of course massively improves their ability to reach a given audience.

This will create a fairly massive demand for crafty agencies that understand the tactic as both a creative endeavor and an exercise in finding the right targets.

The opening

The WPP/Daily Mail/Snapchat trio wants to meet this need for consumer brands, and the partnership makes sense in some respects.

The new company will probably work on behalf of WPP’s clients initially and use Daily Mail and Snapchat as platforms to host their creative. It will probably establish a set of beliefs about the value of content marketing and the heavy role that native advertising plays in it while building up mindshare that guides real-world implementation.

There does not seem to be much effort to support B2B companies with services related to content marketing in general or native ad creation specifically. Snapchat is an app for Millennials, and Daily Mail does not have a strong focus on business news. B2B companies have vastly different needs than do consumer brands for creative and for targeting.

The window to work with B2B companies to optimize the increasingly complex relationship between earned, owned, and paid media seems to remain open.

Andrew GrahamAndrew Graham is co-founder of Clear, an agency that provides public relations, communications, and ghostwriting services.