Everyone's talking about Native Advertising and, as usual, when something shiny and 'new' comes along, views and definitions vary widely. But more to the point, who stands to benefit?
I recently sat on a panel with some leading media figures at the launch of AOL/Huffington Post's research into Native Advertising. The packed theatre at the Soho Hotel heard how it's starting to have an impact for some of the world's leading media owners.
What is Native Advertising?
Well, although everyone seems to be trying to convince the world that it's something new, I'm still struggling to see it as anything other than advertorial.
It's an ad format that can be bought and sold, it follows the form and function of its host and it's an integral part of the viewing experience. That's the same for post-clip films on YouTube, Promoted Tweets on Twitter and full-page advertorials in your newspaper.
But just like the 'What is content and what isn't?' debate, whether Native Advertising is a new name for advertorials in the digital age is missing the point. What does it achieve and who for?
Native Advertising makes total sense for media owners who need to monetise multi-channel audiences more than ever. It's also great for advertisers, who can help deliver on the brand promise made in their above-the-line ads with deeper, more nuanced content.
Most importantly, it offers something relevant and contextual to the consumer. Just like a banner ad, some might say... just a lot more engaging.
Tough questions for publishers
Media owners have always lived by the age-old church/state distinction between editorial and commercial prerogatives. But online, with Native Advertising, that line is increasingly blurry.
Contrast a clearly labelled advertorial page in a newspaper with responsively designed Native Advertising content online. The former was very clear paid-for. The latter - freed from the CMS/template constraints that hamper banner ads - is able to truly integrate with the viewing experience, flexing according to the device, maintaining the form of the publisher's site and making the distinction between publisher and brand not quite so clear.
So there are challenging questions for publishers - and for the media industry as a whole - about how they maintain the trust of their audience and integrity of their brand. Maybe the clear advertorial-esque label will remain; witness the #ad hashtag we're seeing more often on Twitter. Or perhaps in five years consumers simply won't care if they're being sold to, as long as they enjoy the content.
Who makes Native Advertising?
Another key question is what skills are required to create Native Advertising - particularly when agencies of all denominations will, as ever, lay claim to any 'new' trade if there's a buck in it.
Historically, publishers have been perfectly capable of bringing an editorial touch to commercial content, with advertorials being an easy addition to their ad inventory. But again, in the digital age, this isn't so simple.
Many media owners don't have the resources or inclination to quickly and cost-effectively create responsive and engaging commercial content across multiple channels that respects its brand but still delivers the advertiser story in a way that people will actually want to spend time with.
That approach is not easy - particularly if your department's culture is editorial or commercial, not both. We know this because for the past three years, Seven has been working for the Guardian managing the creation of literally hundreds of Native Advertising campaigns for leading global brands like HP, Mercedes-Benz and Starbucks. This involved microsites, video, words, infographics, pictures and apps (and print supplements!).
A content agency can also offer a broader understanding of how to weave Native Advertising into a single narrative across the brand's owned media channels; telling a consistent and engaging story than informs and entertains.
The future for Native Advertising
Other panelists included the super-smart editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, Carla Buzasi, Will Kirkpatrick of O2, who have been investing in Native Advertising, and Phil Reay-Smith of Ogilvy and Mather PR. There was universal agreement that the growth in Native Advertising is a good thing and that we are entering a new era of collaboration.
Nick Cohen, manager partner at Mediacom, was also on the panel. He pointed out that the emergence of Native Advertising has coincided with media agencies needing and wanting to embrace content as display continues to decline. They are used to buying audiences from media owners and this trend is only going to grow.
This is fantastic news for the likes of AOL/Huffington Post as they can now command a premium from advertisers to reach and engage with global audiences. No wonder they were so delighted with the research's findings that consumers, especially younger audiences (so-called 'Generation N'), are happy to engage with (mostly) online content from brands - as long as the content is high quality and relevant, they will engage with it. In fact, they predict Native Advertising will be the preferred format by 2025 at the latest.
Let's get on with it
So who knows if the term Native Advertising will be around in five years' time or whether consumers will demand transparent labelling. What I can say is, let's stop arguing about whether Native Advertising is the emperor's new clothes or not, let's get media owners, media agencies, brands and content specialists around the table to work out what will work best for the people in charge - the audience.