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Let’s stop trying to define 'native'. If you want to sell me something new, just think of a new name

By Dan Plant | Head of Strategy

June 23, 2015 | 6 min read

If there is a buzzword more overused in 2015 than 'native' I’d be amazed. I’ve seen native video, native social, programmatic native, native links, native recommendations, native listings… the list goes on and on.

Recently, I actually heard a mainstream press media owner referring to their own 'native press solution'. You read that correctly: native press. So… an advertisement that looks like editorial. It’s a shame no-one ever created a portmanteau to describe such a product before…

Now whilst I will forever be indebted to that person for providing me with the opportunity to look up and use the word portmanteau, I cannot forgive them for this flagrant bandwagon jumping. When the bandwagon in question is just a badly repackaged version of the advertorials that the print industry created more than a century ago then it is not only inexcusable, but also inexplicable.

I believe that how you name things is really important in how something is perceived and understood by the society or industry you inhabit.

The act of naming something helps to define it, to give it distinctiveness and clarity. In all scientific disciplines, appellation and nomenclature is vital to the progress of a discipline as well as providing easy shortcuts for concepts that are commonly agreed upon. So for example, if I was a zoologist in the middle of a jungle and I wanted to quickly alert someone to the presence of a large quadrupedal striped carniverous mammal with large teeth and claws, I could exclaim “oh look – a large tabby cat-type creature” which would be vaguely accurate, but our chances of being eaten would be somewhat reduced if I just shouted TIGER!

That is why I think our industry is messing up by referring to everything new as 'native' something or other. Each of us thinks that we know what native actually means, but what no one seems to realise is that everyone else will have a different definition of what native advertising actually is. That means that if someone tells me that they want me to buy 'native advertising' from them, I have no way of knowing what they are selling me.

Apparently this is native advertising:

As is this:

As is this:

And now apparently this…

Before long, PR will be referred to as 'free native advertising' and the actual media content will be referred to as 'native editorial'!

Sticking to my zoology analogy, calling all these things native is about as useful as referring to all mammals as one species – so whales are just 'really big mammals that live in the sea' , dogs are 'mammals that love chasing balls' and humans are 'mammals that invent stuff like native advertising'. In the context of zoology, the word mammal is only useful when distinguishing at the very broadest level between types of vertebrate based on how they feed their young. It doesn’t help me at all in deciding what kind of animal I’d like to buy as a pet.

In the same way, the word native is simply a broad identifier to distinguish between two very broad types of advertising.

1. Display advertising – advertising that is clearly distinct from editorial/programming.

2. Native advertising – advertising that more closely resembles the non-advertising content of the medium it is within.

Native is a perfectly acceptable word at that level, but has very little further use in terms of defining or clarifying the true nature and or quality of the advertising or more importantly helping me decide what media I should use on my media plan.

Each of the advertising formats I’ve described above should have a distinct and commonly understood name so that when someone comes to sell me some of it I know what they are selling and I can compare it to other comparable members of the relevant advertising 'family'.

Last year the IAB went to significant lengths to try to clarify what native advertising actually is in the Native Advertising Playbook. In it, the IAB defined six core types of Native advertising – In-feed, Paid search, Recommendation Widgets, Promoted Listings, In-Ad and Custom. These are all perfectly serviceable terms that cover a wide variety of newer advertising solutions. They are not necessarily exhaustive – their number has already increased and unfortunately most have not entered common parlance – but they could have been useful.

However I don’t see that it was necessary to bundle them all together with the term native. They are all quite distinct both visually and functionally and would naturally serve a very different purposes on my plan, so why group them together at all? If the piece was entitled 'Six new types of advertising format' I believe it could have been much more useful.

So in conclusion, if you have a brand new amazing advertising format that you want me to pay attention to and more importantly want me to buy, then have some imagination. Don’t call it native.

Dan Plant is group strategy director and real-time planning director at MEC

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