One of the marcoms buzzwords of recent months has been ‘native advertising’. This is a means by which an advertiser attempts to gain attention through providing content – perhaps promoted videos, images, articles or music – that matches the form and function of the user experience in which they are placed.
"It seems to cover anything from old-fashioned advertorial through to quite clever automated, embedded platforms," comments Eddie May, co-founder at Threepipe.
Organisations are using it for vastly different purposes. It is a very broad church: the search engine marketing you find popping up when you are trawling books and music on Amazon is part of this, as are promoted tweets and trends, Facebook stories or Tumblr posts. Book a train ticket online one day and you may find testimonials to the convenience of the rail company’s wi-fi offering the next day when you are browsing for something completely different.
The idea is that this type of material will feel less intrusive than other forms of advertising and thus increase the likelihood that users will be encouraged to click through. Content marketing is another form of native advertising, with sponsor-funded editorial placed alongside journalist-authored content, often taking the ‘related stories you may like’ approach.
Publisher-produced brand content is another strand and is, on the face of it, similar to traditional advertorial. This may be why, for some PR practitioners, there is more than a little familiarity about native advertising. "We’re fundamentally talking about sponsored content, the like of which has been around in more traditional media for years," says Peter Cross, director of communications at John Lewis. "I’m less than convinced the term native advertising will stick."
An opportunity for PR
Whether it sticks or not, PR agencies rightly sense an opportunity. "Everyone wants to own native advertising but PR has a head start because we are so linked to editorial and we have a rich understanding of the consumer," says Denise Kaufmann, CEO of Ketchum.
"Ownership of native advertising is another chapter in the play for the murky middle of integrated marketing: the convergence of paid, earned, shared and owned media," suggests Chad Latz, worldwide president, digital innovation group at Cohn & Wolfe. "Native is a format that all marketing disciplines are talking about."
PR agencies increasingly understand paid media "and native advertising is another incarnation of that", Latz believes. "PR has always been acknowledged for authenticity and relevance of content. The trend for PR agencies to want a greater share of this activity will undoubtedly continue."
As traditional advertising remains under pressure, such interest is unsurprising. "Lines are blurring between what different agencies have to offer," agrees May. "And PR people are used to content, getting brand messages across in a more subtle way. There is a general trend towards earned media being aligned with paid media."
But there may be limits to how far PR professionals can go native, he suggests: "It’s difficult for a traditional, old-style PR agency to really do it. They can do advertorial because that’s what they’ve done for years. PR agencies should be the ones leading the way, but you need skills more akin to a digital media agency in terms of how you app-roach media buying, for example."
This is not an insurmountable problem and he acknowledges: "Digital agencies would arguably have a weakness over where the content would come from."
If PR claims responsibility for native advertising, then the thorny issue of who should be responsible for measuring its success needs to be addressed. Spada CEO Gavin Ingham-Brooke is not convinced that PR has sufficient tools to take the lead here. "Analytics companies such as Parse.ly or Chartbeat are already leading the way in measuring the effect of content and companies such as Moat are at the forefront with online advertising," he says. "It is unlikely that the PR industry will produce a leader within the measurement category per se."
Measurement and credibility
But PR agencies are keenly aware that the measurement is crucial to their chances of success and to their credibility. "As with AVEs, we believe that you shouldn’t just focus on actions," insists Kaufmann. "A click doesn’t always equate to a conversion. Single data points, such as clicks and impressions, are not meaningful without context so you need to ensure that you focus on meaningful business results."
Cost per click works if your goals are aggressively performance-driven, in that they are paying for the audience that you are guaranteeing to the client, says Ingham-Brooke. "Cost per click is only an intermediary metric," he continues. "It measures output, not business outcome. Engagement metrics such as time on site, page views per visit and social sharing or engagement can offer revealing clues as to how well somebody is telling a story."
It is a theme that Latz also takes up. "Efficiency of spend should always be a consideration, but sometimes a paid-centric approach creates a push for optimisation of spend without considering the impact," he says. "For example, media buyers like to tout efficiencies by lowering CPM [cost per 1,000 impressions] but challenges arise when your revenue model is predicated on volume."
PR’s expertise in earned media means it is able to add nuance to this equation, he believes, including which channel and format will have the greatest effect. He points out that in regards to native advertising this is incredibly important since it is context and relevance that make the format so effective.
Unsurprisingly, PRs see writing native content as their forte. "There is always a role for PR agencies in native advertising, where the unobtrusiveness of the format and the relevance and context to the audience is paramount," Latz says. Kaufmann puts it more bluntly: "PRs should be versatile enough to speak in the brand voice whatever the channel and medium."
Cross is wary of "low-rent advertorial" because consumers see through it, "whereas high-quality authentic and credible editorial and advertiser partnerships can add huge value for everyone," he says. "As a result, I believe truly engaging content should always be created by specialists: journalists, film-makers or relevant creatives."
Cohn & Wolfe has produced native advertising work for Colgate in the consumer packaged goods sector, Michael Angelo’s in food (see case study), Nokia in consumer electronics and corporate branding for other clients. The agency has primarily used social advertising on Twitter and Facebook, search engine marketing with Google
Adwords and sponsored advertorial content online.
"We’ve noticed that our content, informed by an earned media approach, tends to outperform more traditional brand advertising because audience consideration, predisposition and context are extremely important, especially when you’re used to having to earn the attention of consumers and stakeholders," says Latz.
Native takes advantage of both earned and paid principles, making it a valuable mechanism for increasing brand engagement, he says. "The strongest approach emerges from systems that give the consumer what they want, making it easy for them to locate relevant editorial," indicates Kaufmann.
However you cut it up, native is something the PR industry must understand and adopt where appropriate, says Ingham-Brooke. "Nobody might end up owning the terrain," he concludes. "With content-based native advertising, advertising agencies, PR consultancies and the media all produce content and are good at telling stories. Whoever is best at telling those stories will win through."