Don't Disrupt—Get Relevant With Advertising

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Justin Merickel, senior director of new product innovation for advertising solutions, Adobe
Justin Merickel, senior director of new product innovation for advertising solutions, Adobe

Advertising has long been about being disruptive—billboards interrupt the scenery; flashy fashion photo spreads interrupt magazine editorial; and animated characters sell peanuts, tires, and insurance. All of which reinforces the theory that consumers only pay attention to messages if they're delivered in a way that defies expectations. Online advertising can be just as disruptive with screen takeovers, interstitials, and talking ads.

While disruptive advertising fuels the race for agencies to be recognized and win awards, native advertising has quietly been doing the hard work of selling in context. With advertorials and online paid search, usually the only thing alerting us to the fact that content is paid is a tiny text message saying “sponsored” or “ad,” and pastel shading. Yet great native content does more than sell a product; it gets us something we want in the context we're looking for—an advertorial in a travel magazine might spark the idea for the next family vacation, a paid search ad might lead us to the exact product we're looking for at half the normal cost. Native advertising doesn't disrupt the flow of the medium's experience; native adverting adds to the experience by giving us something we're looking for where and when we're looking for it.

Going native can pay off for advertisers. Facebook Sponsored Stories (i.e. ads) combat banner and right-rail ad blindness by placing ads directly in the user's stream, resulting in higher click-through rates. A recent study by Adobe indicated that the click-through rate of desktop newsfeed ads was more than 14 times greater than that of standard right-hand-side ads, with comparable cost-per-clicks. But going native is a more complex process than just sponsoring Facebook posts. The proliferation of native platforms such as Buzzfeed, Tumblr, and Twitter, plus the native offerings of publications like The Huffington Post or The Atlantic leave the advertiser with a host of options to consider. Additionally, ad networks like Federated Media have added native products to their platforms, further muddying the waters of the increasingly complex online advertising ecosystem.

At its core, native advertising is contextually relevant. Therefore, brands must consider the context in which their audience is most likely to engage. The platform is the first consideration—what do people using the platform value, and in what context do they engage with it? Upper middle class readers of The Atlantic make it an obvious match for a brand like Fidelity, while Buzzfeed is a better match for a brand like Pepsi. But the platform can also be used to expand brand reach, as pet food advertisers like Friskies can now reach the newest generation of cat owners by sponsoring cat pictures on Buzzfeed.

How the audience uses a platform is important when considering the larger platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It's well known that older Facebook users are more sensitive to marketing interruptions and personalized retargeting, while the younger generations are generally more receptive to it. On Twitter a business owner might use it differently than the average sports or movie fan who isn't busy promoting a work identity. Crafting content that resonates not just with users, but enhances their experience of using the platform takes hard work, some trial and error, and a close monitoring of performance metrics.

Timeliness is another great advantage of native advertising: the ability to respond to current events increases contextual relevancy as online audiences consume news about sporting events, movie premieres, celebrity gaffes, and other newsworthy events. News around the “royal baby” could have been a great fit for native content from a diaper brand. The famous Oreo Super Bowl “blackout” tweet was so good it didn't need to be sponsored. Event-oriented native advertising requires a combination of careful planning and serendipity, but brands that are quick on the uptake can generate high volumes of positive reaction.

Indeed, a measure of virality is endemic to most native platforms, but because it's so unpredictable, “share” or “like” counts shouldn't be the primary metric of success. Some content is designed to go viral, while some might engender a more private response depending on the product, the message, and the platform. Again, it's all about contextual relevancy.   

The creation, placement, and measurement of native online advertising will take on increasing importance for both consumer and B2B brands as media usage continues to shift to the Web and mobile devices. This requires advertisers to examine their audiences closely to discover not only what platforms they use, but how they use them, and what's relevant to them on those platforms. When all it takes is one click to make that disruptive ad disappear from the screen, there's nothing wrong with getting relevant.

Justin Merickel is senior director of new product innovation for advertising solutions at Adobe.

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