BLURRED LINES: What Native Advertising Means for the Future of Content

Liz Joyce has led content and marketing strategy and produced stories for brands, non-profits, and the public sector. She’s particularly interested in exploring the intersection of marketing content and media consumption. Send her a note if you are, too.

Apple is late to the game. That’s a sentence that you don’t read a lot.

In the wake of companies like Amazon and Netflix, the revered brand announced this summer that it’s jumping on the original programming bandwagon.

Essentially, this is content strategy. Original programming and other entertainment-skewed content reflects both historical television marketing strategies and the rise in native advertising across channels, from newspapers to podcasts.

We’ve come full circle: Inbound marketing is meeting editorial, fully blurring brand and message.  

Branded content is the first step, but how can we leverage these conditions in-house? We don’t have to produce high-production television shows, but we can more effectively blend editorial, entertainment-style narratives with marketing content.

Read on for five powerful lessons we can learn from what native advertisers already know -- from brands on the cutting edge of editorial marketing.

Lesson 1: Start with what you and your audience both care about.

You want to share content that relates to what’s important to your brand, but this has to overlap with what’s important to your audience. Through annual research, American Express OPEN was able to identify an emerging concern from its small business customers — an insight that became the impetus for Small Business Saturday. Mike O’Toole, president of PJA Advertising, explained how American Express successfully aligned its own story with customers’ interests:

“In their 2009 survey of small business needs, American Express found for the first time that business owners were putting promotion — help with driving business — at the top of their list. While small businesses are a huge customer segment for the company, the genesis of Small Business Saturday was about helping small retailers succeed, not opening more accounts. Small Business Saturday was not inconsistent with the company’s commercial interest — just much bigger and broader than that interest. We can all make parallels in our own markets if we look beyond the transaction to find the bigger points of alignment with our customers.”

Lesson 2: Clearly define your goal.

This is an obvious one, but always worth repeating.

Are you trying to reach new audiences and build awareness? Differentiate? Position your brand as a thought leader? Generate leads? Increase engagement? The ultimate goal of your content should be the north star that guides every decision, from message to medium.

PJA Advertising serves up another great example here. For client Red Hat, the goal was to build reputation. The solution was creating The Enterprisers Project, a “content and conversation platform” where visionary CIOs can share and discuss transformative IT business topics and ideas, supported by the editorial credibility of CIO Magazine and Harvard Business Review. With a light “supported by Red Hat” in the corner, the website acts as its own publication, serving highly relevant content for Red Hat’s target audience without pushing its products.

Lesson 3: Put the brand in the back seat.

“Show, don’t tell” is an age-old storytelling strategy. To effectively convey your message, you have to be comfortable with putting brand and product out of the spotlight. Your content will transmit as more authentic and, by extension, be more shareable. For Small Business Saturday, American Express positioned itself as the “founding partner” as opposed to owner, helping the concept spread as an organic movement which was eventually even adopted by U.S. congress.

Lesson 4: Think beyond the blog post.

Your goal and audience will help define the medium of your content, but be open to trying new formats. Branded content offers a treasure trove of inspiration here (thanks to Melanie Deziel’s Overlap League newsletter for some of these and endless other great examples!).

A New York Times piece with method offers some engagement throughout a written piece by integrating photos and responsive graphics. In an interactive from the Washington Post and Siemens, you can guide yourself through two 3D illustrated scenarios demonstrating the fallout from cyberattacks. When Bank of America’s (BoA) data showed that millennials weren’t equipped with the know-how to plan for their future, the company decided to sponsor a YouTube series, The Business of Life. Each short episode follows a talk show format and brings together experts to discuss topics in plain language, from dealing with student debt to the economy of video games. The series is present on BoA’s website, but officially produced and distributed by VICE Media, a go-to trusted outlet for its target audience. The campaign also involved a partnership with Pinterest.

Lesson 5: Have an opinion.

A piece of content that’s able to change the way an audience thinks about or perceives an issue drives more engagement, and is much more memorable. Be sure what you’re creating resonates with, represents, and builds your brand’s unique voice.

Launched off the success of its long-running True Beauty campaign — and its hallmark Sketches video — Dove is expanding its messaging and content that challenges conventional perceptions of beauty by partnering with Creative Director Shonda Rhimes to create Real Beauty Productions.

The Future of Content

We’re in a really interesting time. Brands are setting themselves up as “trusted” sources for both entertainment and information.

The nature of today’s digital media consumption makes this a ripe opportunity for content creators. Social media has made much of content gathering source agnostic, and further, according to Edelman’s Annual Trust Barometer, consumers trust businesses more than the government and the media.

Brands are well-positioned to reliably deliver editorial content, but we’ll still have to continue to ask ourselves: Where is the line between ethical informational vs. biased persuasion and promotion?