Native success is not about advertising – it’s all about content. Just ask President Obama

President Obama uses a selfie stick for BuzzFeed

The debates over native advertising rage on. But perhaps the single biggest – and most under-recognized – challenge is the broader need in today’s media environment to think native. Not in the sense of advertising. But with respect to engaging in new places through unfamiliar formats fast becoming mainstream.

It’s getting wild, fast. We need to address the proliferation of sources, the unpredictability of news cycles and the explosion of new, highly visual media formats. Media buys flooding everyone’s feeds are one way to go. If you think there has to be a better way, evidence suggests there is.

President Obama might divide opinion as much as native advertising does, but when it comes to communications strategy, it’s evident that he and his advisers are thinking native and taking risks by engaging in new practices head on.

As outgoing White House head of communications Dan Pfeiffer explained in an interview with Stephen Levy, “we tried a spaghetti strategy – throw a lot of things against the wall and see what sticks, and to be very willing to take on risk that under traditional political rules you wouldn’t.”

By now, we’ve all seen President Obama’s selfie stick videos and GIFs for BuzzFeed. Within a day of posting, the videos had received more than 23m views on Facebook alone.

Why go to such lengths to engage in this way? Tune-in power – even for the President of the United States – is diminishing. We need to go to where the audience is. This is increasingly fractured and unfamiliar territory. According to Pfeiffer, “You can no longer just have a nationally televised address and speak to 150 million people. So you have to work 15, 20, 30 times harder than previous presidents to have the same impact.”

He also testifies to the importance of the single change that’s upending marketing-as-usual: the overwhelming preference for images over words. Visual influence, as we call it, sees image-based content converging with increased proliferation and range of influential sources at a scale never before seen.

The evidence suggests, whether you look through the lens of venture funding or user behaviors, that a new media order is in the making, and a signal that a new type of visual communication must become more integral for media engagement of all kinds.

Pfeifer suggests that visual influence demands an expanded range of capabilities foreign to traditional communications operations. “We have a lot of people around here who write written words – speeches, talking points, press releases – and you will need people who are creating visual, graphical and video images to communicate the same message.”

He also suggests engaging online will become a key part of government officials’ jobs. “You will not be reaching the quantity of people that you would reach by having a big broadcast television interview but the quality of the outreach will be better because you’ll be getting very engaged people who can take action on behalf of the thing you care about.”

Data from the White House suggests President Obama’s appearance on Funny or Die with Zach Galifianakis led to a “huge spike” in healthcare application completions, and the Buzzfeed video led to a “massive increase” in referrals to Healthcare.gov. As Buzzfeed’s social caption on the footage stated: “How did we get Obama to use a selfie stick? Oh, because he wants you to go to Healthcare.gov.” (Disclosure: Healthcare.gov is a Weber Shandwick client.)

For all the extra effort it entails, native content plus broad engagement can pay off. So agree or disagree with President Obama, there’s a lot anyone in brand business might glean from his team’s recent moves into native content and engagement around it.

When it comes to adopting native thinking, selfie sticks are optional.

Experimentation isn’t.

Chris Perry is president of Weber Shandwick Digital

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