Everyone’s Gone Native: Wrapping Up PubForum Sonoma & the Native Advertising Summit, Part I

Wrap-Up: Everyone's Gone Native

Carve it into a tree, with a heart circling the acronyms: DM+NA.

Digital media and native advertising – absolutely made for each other. The most perfect pairing since peanut butter met jelly; a more powerful coupling than Beyonce and Jay-Z; more notorious in the digital advertising ecosytem than Bonnie and Clyde. Digital media and native advertising’s immaculate unity was reiterated over and over again at both the Native Advertising Summit in NYC two weeks ago and AdMonsters’ Publisher Forum: Sonoma last week. (Read part 2 here.)

Though it’s not easily definable, native advertising has taken the digital media world by storm – it might possibly be a more popular buzzword than programmatic premium. Native solutions are breeding like rabbits while plenty of questions remain: Is it scalable? What happens when it fails? Oh yeah, what is it exactly?

Even at this early developmental stage, the native race seems to be prophesizing a future where content and advertising are seamlessly integrated into the same stream – both on the front end and the back end. The biggest question out there may be how native advertising’s mass adoption will transform the role of revenue professionals.

No Easy Explanation

So is a full-page ad in a magazine a form of native advertising?

The Native Advertising Summit panelists – Darren Herman of The Media Kitchen, Dee Salomon of MediaLink, Todd Wasserman of Mashable and David Shing of Aol – hesitated, looked at one another and then began to nod in rhythm.

“Yeah,” they said, one by one.

Especially take the spreads in a high-gloss fashion magazines. Before Vogue’s table of contents, there are 50-odd pages or so of advertisements, but they’re anything but intrusive. Beautiful ads featuring beautiful (and usually heavily Photoshopped) pictures of beautiful people in beautiful clothing are an essential part of that magazine’s experience. You could even call it “in-stream” advertising

No one should claim native is a fresh concept, but it’s not like display advertising is all that original either – it’s based on the interruptive box model that previously worked revenue wonders for newspapers and other print publications. However, we’ve figured out by now it doesn’t really perform in the makeshift format forced on the digital scene for numerous reasons. 

First off, there’s the meteoric rise of media consumption – up 70% in the last 20 years, according to Sonoma Keynote Brian Monahan of MAGNA Global. Widespread adoption of the tablet will only intensify this diet. Zemanta President and former Cheezburger CRO Todd Sawicki, another Sonoma keynote, added that consumers are subjected to 50 ads every online session. Saturation, much?

Another reason boxes and banners don’t cut the digital mustard is that in the print realm, eyes are forced to scan across a sheet and flip pages to follow the stream content. Scrolling isn’t the same – one online eye-tracking survey after another shows that banner blindness is rampant. Users know where ads are going to be – they don’t bother to avert their eyes because their subconscious is so well-trained.

Finally, consider that it takes an inordinate amount of time, effort and money to get those under-performing ads delivered and it’s clear why alternatives to the banner are in high demand.

As I’ve argued before, this is what native is: thinking (and executing) beyond the banner. Yeah, that’s vague, so can we define what exactly native is?

Follow-up question: should we bother?

Native seems to be many things to many players. Product placement in a TV show? Sure, the panelists said – say, if a character takes a swig off a can and comments, “[Brand X] is the best damn soda ever!” Carrie from “Sex and the City” is writing all her juicy bits on an HP now? Smells like an endorsement.

It’s much easier to say what native is not – interruptive formats such as interstitials and pre-roll.

Harmonious Relationships

Of course, that didn’t stop participants at the Native Advertising Summit from trying to define term du jour. Dan Greenberg of host company ShareThrough called it the integration of content-based ads into the site experience. 

So advertorials?

“We wouldn’t all be here if native was just advertorials,” Wasserman quipped, who went on to suggest that both advertorials and branded content are forms of native, but just not the same. Moderator Amy Auerbach added that advertorial suggests the brand contributed or heavily assisted in building the content. 

Monahan had strong words about this at the Publisher Forum: “We’ve bastardized native” because we think of it as disguising ads as content. “Native is not a design principle but a state of mind.”

At the Native Advertising Summit, Shing suggested we view native advertising not as advertising, but conversations that are harmonious with their environments. The goal should be to move out of native and into harmony. He’d explore this concept further in his breathless Tuesday morning presentation at the Publisher Forum in Sonoma.

Some publishers are on the harmonious path: James Del from Gawker showed a video montage from an Intel-sponsored photography contest that sent top participants in Gizmodo’s weekly photography challenge around the world, shooting in a variety of locales and editing on the new Ultrabook. Rather than intrusive, the videos were viewed as complementary – a behind the scenes look at the process behind making a great photo.

“It’s OK if it’s advertising,” Del said. “If the content is good and interesting to the readership, the users will consume it.”

In that case study, the context was front and center – brand integrated into a regular site feature – but Eddy Moretti of VICE showed how it can work on a subtler level. Once again, Intel was behind a native campaign (in partnership with W Hotels) showcasing the work of four respected independent directors. None of the resulting short films were directly related to VICE content, but all shared the risqué publisher’s penchant for pushing the envelope.

“We do a lot of crazy shit on VICE, but we still get blue chip advertisers,” Moretti said. “There are many rules around creating content with a brand, but first they have to have the appetite.”

And Intel’s appetite appears to have paid off: the technology firm has seen a serious perception shift in its branding, particularly with a youth demographic that had little clue what the company did. Increasingly Intel is being viewed as a creative brand like Apple.

Click over to part 2 to discover when going native goes south, and how this movement has the potential to change the role of revenue professionals by blending content and advertising.