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Native Advertising: The Hottest Thing Since Myspace

Scrolling through the Forbes.com editorial stream, you get stuck on an enticing headline, “Fueled by Skepticism.” You’re led to a slick, interactive page showing quotes from skeptics, contrasted by facts of accomplishment. You learn about space exploration, automobile evolution, food invention, and the emergence of personal tech, with engaging little quizzes interspersed. Where did this fun little piece come from? What is it doing on Forbes.com?

It turns out, Toyota paid for this playful page, using Forbes magazine’s native advertising channel – BrandVoice. Within the section of fuel-cell development, Toyota managed to incorporate their commitment to fuel-cell and a three minute video ad, “How a Car Runs on ‘Bullsh*t’ (Cow Manure, That Is).” That’s right, you read through this entire piece and its advertiser content, enthusiastically. This is native advertising, and it is pushing the barriers for what branded creative advertising is capable of.

Birthing a New Medium

The evolution of banner and display ads is a great example of why we, the nonprofit sector, need to start taking notes from Toyota’s progressive native campaign. In 2000, banner ads enjoyed a 9% click-through rate (Solve Media). “Why that’s a tantalizing offer you put in front of me? How’d that get there?” By the end of 2015, that had dropped to just .06% for an HTML5 banner, and .07% for all display formats (Display Benchmark Tool).   Moreover, ad blocking, by June 2015, had reached 45 million active U.S. users (PageFair). Consumers are telling marketers that we have largely cashed in on the display opportunity.

Rather than intruding on the user’s surfing session, native inserts itself into the content users are already seeking – and users are responding favorably. By September 2013, native ads were viewed 53% more than banner ads (Dedicated Media).

While the evidence shows increasing consumer engagement with native ads, we’re not suggesting you take display advertising out of your repertoire. More than a few statistics go into building a complete, integrated marketing program. However, at Strength in Members, we are excited to see what the era of native advertising can do for our clients and their causes.

What We Like About Native

It’s Creative Driven – In order for native promotion to work, it has to actually look native. This is a departure from the old-fashioned (logo + ask) formula. Native content still serves to convey a brand message, but only after it has delivered content that resonates with the medium’s audience. Putting content as paramount has led to some applause worthy creative – from Netflix’s “Cocainenomics” multimedia piece on WSJ, to the design agency, Area17, showing how to do native in a B2B context (Check out the list Nudge, a native management platform, put together for more awesome campaigns). As marketers, it is refreshing to see how native has put good creative back in the limelight.

It Uses Innovative Segmenting - Native players such as Outbrain, Taboola, and Sharethrough are on the forefront of native adtech, pushing its availability and effectiveness. A helpful member of the Taboola sales team even claimed their network reaches 90% of U.S. users monthly.  He even directed me to the bottom the headline CNN.com story that day to demonstrate his point.   Similar to display networks, these providers do an impressive job segmenting users to keep delivering relevant native content. Taboola has partnered with marketing data providers Acxiom for B2C, and Bombora for targeting. Outbrain uses an algorithm-heavy approach, weighting popularity, contextual, behavioral, and personal (cookie-based) factors to dynamically serve users content. Meanwhile, Sharethrough provides innovative platforms for publishers, ad managers, and the first direct native ad exchange. As a relatively new medium, native is evolving to show the power of adtech to help organizations accomplish their marketing goals.

Where Native Can Improve

It’s Expensive – Unfortunately, native is still owned largely by our wealthier commercial counterparts.   As a newer ad industry, spending minimums remain high and inaccessible for the typical nonprofit’s media budget. Sharethrough’s managed service for campaigns has a staggering $100,000 minimum, while Taboola requires $5,000 in spend on their Cost-Per-Click (CPC) model. The Taboola sales representative did tell us of some nonprofit clients, but these were strictly some of the largest organizations in the U.S. Outbrain, however, follows a CPC model with only a $10/day minimum spend. This works great for $300 Google-esque market experiments. For now, native is reserved for budgets much deeper than the typical nonprofit’s. However, we are optimistic that, like many new advertising mediums, disruption will make native accessible for smaller budgets.

It Still has Fuzzy Moral Guidelines – Masking advertising as genuine content presents the potential for user deception. A lighthearted Buzzfeed post being interpreted as an authentic post is a harmless marketing slight of hand. However, paid promotion hidden as news can lead news agencies and their audiences astray. A sponsored content piece that The Atlantic ran for the Church of Scientology (See The Guardian’s take on the whole debacle here) has now become infamous for this. The obvious danger is that this “advertorial” and linked video can be interpreted as editorial content. However, we can learn even more from the backlash of this clear advertising misstep.   Readers looking for authentic editorial content recognized the deception of this native run, and made The Atlantic and the Church of Scientology pay for it in credibility. The lesson to be learned: good native is sensitive to the channel and audience.

The Takeaway for Nonprofit Marketers 

Toyota’s vibrant example lives on the frontier of what native advertising can do today. Most nonprofits don’t have the resources necessary to do a similar campaign for their cause.   However, as the native industry evolves, perhaps it is not too far off the horizon. As nonprofit digital marketers, we all benefit from the innovation native brings. Creative boundaries are pushed, segmenting becomes more efficient, prices come down, and moral guidelines become more apparent as this industry matures.  

Strength in Members is excited to join the native progression for its clients, and is even more excited for what it can bring for the third sector as a whole.


Tell us about your experience with native advertising in the comments below.


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