The term “user experience” is an increasingly elastic one. It has extended from denoting experiences with single, tangible touchpoints (such as websites), to encompass the user’s entire experience of a product or business: the brand as an interface. This shifting meaning is indicative of a correspondent shift in consumer expectations; that brands will offer a more interactive, human and aware dimension. Interruptive marketing is descending to the same level of acceptability as taking an unsolicited seat at a stranger’s table at a restaurant and rifling through their handbag – that is, likely to get the offender removed.
Two major trends have been born of people’s desires to create experiences that garner an actual invitation to the table (and one day, perhaps, the handbag).
There has been an immense amount of discussion about “native advertising” in recent months, with various people interpreting the scope of the term in different ways. Native advertising is essentially an industry pet-name for any product that isn’t a banner and which looks like the content around it.
The aim of native is to provide valuable content in the context of the publisher’s site — well thought out content that augments, rather than disrupts, the user’s experience. In essence — good advertising. The purpose of native is to leap the hurdle of ad blindness, giving advertising content a better chance of being ‘heard’. Particularly online, with a wealth of truly great content at our fingertips combining with the intention-driven nature of the internet, marketers are hard-pressed to capture our attention.
Sometimes called “advertorials” by our distant ancestors, “native advertising” has broad applications. These include sponsored articles (BuzzFeed is one of many publishers that has launched a native ad network in an attempt to make this type of advertising more scalable), custom articles (such as those seen on Vox Media’s new suite of display ads), a combination of the two, sponsored stories, promoted tweets and search advertising (sometimes called the original native advertising).
A key challenge to native is scalability: strictly defined, it needs to match the user experience of each individual publisher deploying the technology, making it expensive and time-consuming to create. It also opens up interesting discussions around new business models for content creation. If valuable content is at the heart of native advertising, it stands to reason that the creators thereof should receive a greater reward than increased site traffic, particularly if they are paying for the space. Such models, again, pose a challenge in terms of scale, but also lay the foundation for exciting developments and incentives for better content creation.
A second major trend stemming from a desire to combat advertising blindness is conversation marketing. As the name suggests, this form of marketing leverages the two-way, responsive capabilities of the internet, making the audience as responsible for content creation as the media-creators. The fundamental economy of the internet is based on value exchange: with AdWords, for example, one doesn’t pay until someone clicks and one won’t be successful unless what is on the other side of that click has value. This distinction is what shifted businesses’ views to the internet as a platform, as opposed to another marketing channel. Search is the opening line of a dialogue, accompanied by the expectation that the machine will interpret and respond – built-in expectation of a response, of question and answer, is the central tenet of the internet culture.
The internet is also a platform for dialogue between consumers. In addition to being able to respond in a variety of ways (proactively on social networks, reactively on social networks or corporate channels) to an audience that directs queries or demands at them, brands are also seeking ways to join or inspire consumer conversations. This involves a degree of listening; highlighting relevant affinity areas and attempting to tap into these.
An example of an indicator for the rise of conversation marketing is the hashtag – this year’s SuperBowl saw more hashtags pushed than any other channel; with the hashtag existing as a symbol of “talk about this”, as opposed to “talk to us”. Consumer conversation becomes a vehicle for marketing, a kind of fleet of Trojan horses carrying brand messages past the gates of ad fatigue and into relevance.
The overlap between native advertising and conversation marketing is evidenced by offerings such as Facebook’s sponsored stories or Twitter’s promoted tweets, which leverage consumer conversation as pieces of marketing communication.
The combination of native and conversation advertising also frequently comes into play in the sphere of influencer marketing. A recent survey reveals that 92% of influencers would accept compensation from an advertiser to promote a product through their social media accounts, if the content was relevant to their audience.
A recent example is Mercedes Benz’s CLA awareness campaign, wherein it selected five top-followed Instagram users and gifted them a Mercedes CLA for a week and asked them to document their experiences through photographs. These photographs, embedded in the feeds of popular Instagram users, are, by many definitions, a form of native advertising. While not a replacement for organic social media, seeding and incentivizing content across influencer eco-systems plays a huge roll in amplifying a campaign and kick-starting initial conversation.
The meaning of ‘advertising’ has shifted from traditional wide reach media and banners, to a growing focus on impact and relevance. A rise in native-type advertising is inevitable in this context. With all media becoming increasingly social, we can expect interesting business model developments and shifts in thinking around where the definition of “native advertising” begins and ends.