Selling Ideas, Not Products With Native Ad Science

on Cognative

A version of this article was originally published on Dig Content by Jon Wilks.

An infographic The Science Behind Native Advertising from Sharethrough and Nielsen recently caught my attention for a number of reasons, not least the fact that somehow, at some point over the last 12 months, those in the know seem to have decided what native advertising is.

For a very long time it was a buzzphrase used to talk about everything from digital advertorial to well-camouflaged banner ads to thought leadership pieces to corporate blogs.

I remember being asked to write about it for an agency blog, around a year ago, and having to give up after several attempts because nobody internally could agree on what I ought to be writing about.

Well, apparently the confusion is no more.

The Science Behind Native Advertising - Sharethrough Infographic

According to the infographic, it is native advertising that ‘interrupts the feed’, which in itself is ‘the new design standard for the mobile era.’

According to the piece, native ads – sponsored headlines within lists of non-sponsored headlines – receive 52% more attention than banner ads on a desktop device, and twice as many on a tablet.

Not great news for makers of banner ads, who are currently achieving far less than a single percent in terms of click-through rates, but wonderful news for writers of ‘branded content’, or digital advertorial.

The Feed Is The New Design Standard For Mobile

The feed is the new design standard

While it’s a bit backward that the ‘new design standard’ is effectively a list – nothing more complex than a spruced-up RSS (that’s the nature of content and content marketing in general – what goes around comes around), I’m encouraged once again by the suggestion that you can’t really sell online in a way that you could pre-internet.

People simply ignore the hard sell online – they install adblock plugins to avoid banners, or they skip over click-bait headlines that are trying a bit too hard.

The importance of headlines in native ads

Beneath every good headline must be a good story

I’ve heard it spoken about a lot recently, most notably by Al Hutchison of London content marketing agency Creative Cherry ("You can’t advertise online… or, to put it more precisely, you shouldn’t") and by filmmaker Casey Neistat, who said in a recent Youtube interview:

"I don’t think anyone wants to be sold a product. It’s just not interesting. But people like to be sold ideas. If you look at the really great companies – Nike, Apple Computers – they’re always selling ideas. And when people buy the ideas, they follow and buy the product."

So it seems that the infographic publisher, Hutchison and Neistat are all in agreement.

Force the product down people’s throats, and you’re wasting time, money and energy.

Give them an idea, or a context in which the product makes sense and you’re far more likely to get noticed and be remembered

And I think that’s the trick to native advertising when defined as a form of feed-jacking for the mobile generation.

What worries me is that the infographic doesn’t go far enough.

The stats are only really referring to headline writing, and – as every good student of journalism knows – beneath every good headline is a good story (or, at least, you hope there is).

As the infographic points out, native advertising has more success than banner advertising because "people are looking for stories to read", but unless you’re giving them precisely that – something to read – you’re only offering a portion of the deal.

Why we're reading native ads

Why are native ads read?

We’ve all been there – lazily scrolling down some article or other, our eyes caught by a faintly tantalizing headline, followed by that sense of being had when you arrive on a piece of sub-tabloid crap laid out across 20 badly-scrolling pages to maximise page views.

It’s about quality, and when you’re a brand paying good money for branded content, you’d probably prefer that the first words springing to your readers’ minds are not "cheap", "poorly written", "awful grammar", "waste of time", or "where’s the soap – I feel unclean".

And so I implore anyone thinking about getting involved in native advertising or content marketing of any nature to ask themselves this: is 52% more attention worth it if your potential lead leaves feeling shortchanged?

Descriptive headlines can improve brand perception
As someone who makes a living through content marketing, I think spending less money on banner advertising is probably a good thing (although I think it more sensible to consider all of these things, case by case, as part of an overall mix).

But throwing it all into native advertising is just as dangerous if the articles behind the headlines aren’t part of a long-term strategy to build trust and advocacy for your brand.

"Descriptive headlines can improve brand perception" says the infographic, but if you’re delivering shoddy pieces beneath them, then all that cheaply-won brand perception can go straight back out the window.

Once again, content is king, but it’s a pauper without quality control.


Jon Wilks writes on content marketing for a number of publications including Dig Content and the Guardian Media Network.