In the internet media and advertising worlds these days, there's been a lot of talk about so-called "native advertising." This is advertising that is "native to the medium" or which fits within the framework of the site or service, rather than being off to the side, flashing away, hoping for attention. Depending on who you talk to, this is either wonderful and innovative, or horrible and the end of all things good in the world of media. On the plus side, people talk about how native advertising can be less annoying, less intrusive and more full of actual content than the alternatives. On the negative side, you hear talk of "advertorials," the possibility of "tricking" readers and the breakdown of advertising and editorial independence.
I am, of course, not a neutral observer. As a site, we have engaged in what is now called "native advertising" in some form or another since way before it was ever called that. Over the past few years, we have partnered with various companies in the hope that they would be able to convince marketers and advertisers of the value of this. It was four years ago that we began writing our series of posts on why advertising is content and content is advertising
Most recently, a few months back, we ended the last of our exclusive partnerships with various advertising firms and sought to go out on our own. One of the issues was that when working with partners, they were often looking to sell something for a bunch of sites, rather than focusing on what we could do specifically. And when you do that, you're not really looking to be "native" to the audience in question, because you're still looking for that scale. To some extent, we felt that we were losing ground in not being able to really work directly with advertisers to do the more compelling programs that our community wants
And this, I think, is the key point that is often lost in the debates about native advertising. The site Digiday recently asked a bunch of publishers how they define "native advertising,"
and, frankly, I think they all miss the most central component to it: truly native advertising is advertising that people want to experience
. It's not just about integrating the experience into the area where people normally look for content. It's about making the advertising itself as compelling (if not more compelling) than any other content on a site.
Too many people automatically assume that this is impossible or that we're talking about some sort of advertorial or "tricking" people. We're talking about the opposite of that. We're talking about content that is so good, and so valuable, that the community finds it useful and compelling even when they know it's sponsored or advertising. There are, of course, plenty of examples of this happening in other contexts. A very large percentage of people watch the Super Bowl more for the commercials than for the games. They know they're watching advertising. But they like it, because the commercials themselves are entertaining (perhaps more entertaining than the game). Remember how many people watched that Old Spice
"I'm on a horse" video a few years back? And, these days, lots of folks have been passing around Kmart's "ship your pants"
ad, not because they're being tricked, but because it's funny and they like it.
When done correctly with online publications, the end result of all this should be a win for the community (they get more content they want), the advertiser (they get the attention of a valuable community) and the publisher (they get to provide more valuable content and they can stay in business). There is no intrusion. There is no trickery. There is no giving people what they don't want.
Of course, this isn't always easy. An advertiser might not have
something that a community wants. Though, in that case, it often seems like there are interesting ways to team up to deliver what people want. Buzzfeed, for example, does this by having its own editorial folks work with advertisers to produce content that people might appreciate - such as "top 10 lists" that are just as good as any other content on that site - but which comes from a marketer like Virgin America or Canon.
We, too, are striving to bring more such content to our site, which we hope you'll find valuable. For example, we recently started an advertising relationship with the App Developers Alliance
, a trade group that represents application developers, helping them to be more productive, and helping push back against things that get in their way, such as patent trolls. As a part of this relationship, you can see things like the content widget in our side bar to the right. Here's a screenshot of it (or just look at the actual interactive one just one column over!).
This is a "sponsored" widget that we developed for the Alliance, highlighting and linking back to some of the content on their own DevsBuild.it
site. As you can see, it's all pretty relevant and interesting content for anyone who's an app developer, or who's interested in these general things. We think it's pretty awesome. There is nothing "advertorial" about it. There's nothing "sneaky" about it. It's just a bunch of really useful content that we think many of you will find useful too. In the end, you get more useful content that you want, the App Developers Alliance gets more people aware of the excellent work that they're doing and we get to continue publishing. It's a true win-win-win situation that doesn't involve anything annoying or intrusive or irrelevant. And, of course, it's all clearly disclosed.
We'll also be working with them on a series of sponsored posts where, again, the focus will be entirely on content that is valuable to the folks who make up the Techdirt community.
I recognize that this still
will upset some, who insist that any
advertising is a horrible thing. Frankly, I can't understand that thinking, and it doesn't make any sense at all. As we said from the beginning, all
content, by itself, is advertising too. If you're reading any post on this site, you're reading advertising. It's advertising for this site, for the wider Techdirt community, for us as a company, for me as a writer, and for everything else that we do. In fact, each post and the ensuing discussion is a form of advertising. When you comment on the site, you're a part of that process as well.
Frederic Filloux recently wrote that there's no reason to complain about native advertising if it's properly disclosed
. I'd take that one step further. There's no reason to complain about native advertising if it's properly disclosed and if the content is good and valuable to the community.
It's a high bar to reach -- and I actually think most of the complaints about native advertising to date have really been about the lack of understanding of that final point. People don't like native advertising when the content itself is bad and not relevant -- like when Scientology posts some lame babble on The Atlantic
. Make it good, useful and relevant
, and no one cares that it's also
advertising. The problem is just how difficult it is to make it good. Still, I think as people start to figure out that the central facet of truly
native advertising is that it's content that people want, they'll start to get past many of the problems that some people have with native advertising campaigns today.
On that note, of course, we are looking for companies who believe in this vision as well, and who want to work with us to build compelling campaigns that not only get you attention, but which also provide the community here with value that they appreciate. Please contact us if you're interested.