The least understood marketing buzzword of 2014? Industry roundtable on the untapped opportunities of native

Everybody has heard about it, most want to do it, but few are sure they know exactly what ‘it’ is. We are of course talking about native advertising, contender for the most overused, yet least understood, marketing term of 2014, and the subject of a recent roundtable discussion hosted by The Drum in association with Say Media.

A recent survey found a strong disconnect around what the term ‘native’ actually means, while more than half (52 per cent) of media executives surveyed by Say Media feel definition is stunting the growth of native advertising.

These feelings certainly prevail at an industry roundtable aimed at exploring the state of native and its future potential, though the media executives present are slightly more optimistic in their outlook as to whether this matters.

Also up for debate is the need for more robust measurement and evaluation tools, the role of publisher as trusted gate-keeper, the growing role of mobile and in-stream content and why low-quality ‘spam’ is in danger of giving native a bad name.

Matthew Knight, Carat’s head of innovation, says: “Have we reached a solid definition of native and does it matter? No, and no. I have been involved in a number of conversations like this and every time what’s really interesting is different people coming to talk and expecting to talk about different things."

He believes the industry is too quick to choose and define such terms – a self-limiting danger in itself.

Clare O’Brien, the IAB’s senior industry programmes manager, adds that it “cannot matter” that no clear definition has been reached. “What we’re dealing with is the evolution of digital and digital platforms – we can’t know what it looks like, we’re only 20 years into this medium. We’re experimenting.”

For Nick Cohen, MediaCom’s managing partner and head of content, native is a “confusing” term but one the industry is stuck with, for better or for worse, while Justin Taylor, managing director of digital at MEC, admits it has been useful as a way of introducing the topic to clients.

Lawrence Horne, Say Media’s UK sales director, is also of the opinion that native covers too large an area to be truly useful. He also considers platforms such as Outbrain and Taboola, which monetise and distribute links on publisher sites, “signposting” services rather than native.

Taylor adds: “My view is that what we should be talking about is content marketing and distribution.”

More pertinent than what native ‘is’ is what it shouldn’t be, agrees the panel, who warn that the nascent sector will more likely be damaged by abusing consumer trust, from unsuitable partnerships, low quality/inappropriate content, or by failing to label sponsored content.

Cohen points to the scandal surrounding a piece in The Atlantic paid for by the Scientology movement which drew considerable ire when it appeared last year – it was, he says, “a corporate message going out in the guise of objective editorial, and that’s dangerous."

Knight cites BuzzFeed and its transparent policy on accepting sponsored editorial: “It believes there is no benefit to brands unless they are front andcentre about their involvement, as in ‘what’s the point of a brand being involved unless it is seen to be involved?’"

Another publishing brand lauded for its values is the Guardian, which has strict quality control too, says Say Media director of solutions Carla Faria. “Not any old advertiser can come and share the Guardian brand. That care it puts in needs to be observed by the publishing industry en masse.

They need to understand how to choose these partnerships and make them work.” O’Brien adds that because publishers have the most to lose – ie the erosion of their own brand equity – they should be the ones leading the discussions about how native sits in the published environment. “That is not to say agencies and brands don’t have responsibility, however,” she says.

“Publishers are the gate-keepers but we all have a role in what’s happening. We have to be wary of too many commercially driven decisions being taken during the experimental stage.”

For Taylor, the agency’s core responsibility is in educating clients and understanding how to build brand equity for the longer term rather than “shoehorning” through content as if it were a traditional advertorial. “When we used to do micro-sites there would be no editorial integration,” he continues.

“Now it’s changed because there’s more editorial sign-off from a native point of view. We pay for distribution.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to growth is not how agencies, clients and publishers define native, but how they frame its effectiveness and measure its value.

“There is a big discussion around measurement and evaluation and what this means,” says O’Brien. “It’s upstepping the whole industry for new touch points rather than retrofitting. It’s an entirely different medium – the audience has a completely different relationship with it.”

Cohen adds: “For native to work, the client and agency need to be clear on what they’re trying to achieve. People think it’s a good thing to do, but they’re not clear on what metric they are trying to shift. It is only just becoming clear what different types of native do for your brand.”

For Knight it is not about media outcomes but business outcomes. “I like to talk to our clients about ‘the purchase fish’ – it’s a mass of different interactions, touch points of subtle and strong influences, all of which have an impact on what the outcome is. We need to measure everything.”

Simply put, client and agency must begin to think like a publisher and not a brand. The sector best cracking content online is business to business, says Taylor. “B2B is more challenging content but it is also more relevant, and not consumed by the ‘mass reach’. GE is a good example of a great content marketer and it is now moving from B2B to the consumer world.”

Luxury brands are also benefiting because in the free digital age quality “shines through”, but Taylor warns that 85 per cent of content is in danger of giving native a bad name, pointing to the cosmetic surgery and diet pills articles that litter the internet.

As Cohen puts it: “One danger of new formats is you suddenly get people producing low quality. Native is only effective if it delivers; everything else is spam.”

One area where native could really cut through is mobile, because unlike the desktop experience, inventory is limited. From in-stream placement on Twitter and Facebook to audio-visual content, native is ideally suited to mobile browsing, though Taylor says it is “unfortunately” still mostly driven by direct response.

Big opportunities, then, but also challenges. Knight says agencies must learn to understand how content can be cut in different ways for different audiences. “Our creative teams in the industry must be closer to soap opera writers rather than copywriters.” Or, as Cohen would have it, “more One Show than Blue Planet”.

It’s why ‘always on’ is very important, he says. More content and more still over time. “We can then start to understand the context of that audience and optimise it.”

If content is native’s king, context is its queen.

This article was originally published in the 12 November issue of The Drum.

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