Social Is Part Of The Native Experience, But Advertising On Social Isn't Native

Here’s a small experiment. We’d like you to imagine that you’re visiting another website, and on top of the content you want to see there is an advertisement. It’s for a product you have no interest in, it’s irrelevant to the content around it, and it seems to have been served to you purely on account of your geographical location.

What ad format are you picturing? A banner? A pop-up? Wrong. We were describing a promoted tweet.

That’s a deliberately provocative way of highlighting why there’s so much confusion when it comes to native advertising. We certainly aren’t suggesting that promoted tweets or other forms of social advertising aren’t effective, or shouldn’t be key elements of a communications strategy. But it’s vital that some light is shone onto these issues in order to make informed decisions.

We identified at the start of this project that one of the primary reasons why native advertising wasn’t fully understood was the lack of a clear definition. Now that we have agreed a definition, we can begin to challenge some of the presumptions that have been made around the subject, especially when it comes to clarifying what is, and isn’t, truly native.

As a reminder, here is our description of native advertising:

“Sponsored content, which is relevant to the consumer experience, which is not interruptive, and which looks and feels similar to its editorial environment”. And then let’s re-examine the sponsored tweet example - in fact, let’s look at a specific sponsored tweet like this one:

• Sponsored content? Yes – and it’s flagged as such, which is crucial.

• Relevant to the consumer experience? Possibly, if you’re a parent of school-age children.

• Which is not interruptive? No, this sits right at the top of my feed. I can dismiss it, but that’s an interruption in itself.

• Looks and feels similar to its editorial environment? Yes, it’s a tweet, on Twitter.

It just so happens that this tweet was served to a 32 year old male, who (to the best of his knowledge) doesn’t have any children. So on two of the four key descriptors, this particular sponsored tweet fails to meet the description of a truly native ad. And the same is going to be true of sponsored posts on Facebook and LinkedIn – a reliance on sophisticated algorithms (or even some basic behavioural data) that of course is never going to hit the mark every time, or even most of the time.

Can they be effective? Absolutely. Are they native? No.

Environment is crucial.

By definition, native advertising must be tailored, be native, to the environment it’s being shown in. And given that every Twitter feed, every Facebook page, every LinkedIn profile is unique and curated solely by the user, it’s impossible for brands to create native ads that are going to fit every environment.

Sponsored tweets and Facebook posts reach huge audiences and enjoy high engagement levels relative to traditional formats (especially amongst young audiences), but for the majority of users they remain an interruptive experience. This is why they have dismiss and hide buttons; it’s acknowledged that for most people this is going to be an irrelevant message.

In the overall context of a native advertising campaign, social is of course crucial. It can drive scale, improve engagement with a brand and facilitate the two-way dialogue Generation N consumers desire. A native campaign that neglects to maximise the opportunities social media can offer is going to be at a huge disadvantage. So the key is to ensure social works alongside native for the best possible benefit to the campaign as a whole.

Nigel Gwilliam, Head of Digital at the IPA (Institute for Practitioners in Advertising), makes a clear distinction between “publisher-led native” and “social-led native”. “I do sense there is a fairly significant difference between publisher-led native and social-led native,” he says. “I think social platforms of a scale, most notably Facebook and Twitter, are new kinds of environments that are understandably looking to find advertising that best suits something that they offer which hasn’t really been offered before.”

So, could there be a ‘Scale of Native’?

As with any emerging trend, maybe native can’t be completely black and white. Maybe there’s a ‘scale of native’, that begins with the fundamentally non-native traditional ad formats, and ends with the globally impactful branded content of the type produced by Red Bull, Unilever or Coca-Cola.

Along the scale we encounter content-led social formats like promoted YouTube videos, sponsored LinkedIn articles, promoted tweets and Facebook posts. As described above, these can’t be considered to be truly native, but they do more to engage and entertain a consumer than a standard ad format ever could.

Further down this scale we discover formats that meet each of the four pillars in our description of native. This sponsored content could take the form of a story on Buzzfeed or Mashable, or a Brand Page here on the Huffington Post. Crucially, these are environments that are edited on behalf of the user, not curated by the user; meaning sponsored content can be created that is not only in keeping with the interests and experience of the audience, but native to the environment around it.

Finally, we arrive at a place few brands will ever realistically get to (or have the right to). To become creators of ‘branded entertainment’ and become publishers or media owners in their own right. The few brands that have achieved this credibly made the decision years ago to put content at the heart of their communications strategy. Brands like Unilever, Red Bull, Coca Cola and Nike now own global media platforms which can be considered native advertising; the platform, the environment, the content, the brand message, it’s all theirs and is completely in tune with their brand identities.

But crucially, as with the Red Bull Stratos project outlined in the Native Age report, the content remains king; relevant, compelling and inspirational.