With all this talk of native advertising, we as an industry seem to have shortened it to a single word. “We’re doing some native with that publisher” or “They bought some native from us.“
We’ve nounified it. And while some linguistic purists might not be pleased with the process, it’s a natural part of the evolution of language.
But when we use “native” as a self-sufficient noun, we forget that the original adjectival form referenced the vital relationship between the content and the environment in which consumers experience it. “Native advertising,” by definition, must be native TO something.
The same way we say that plants are native to their region, content must be native to its environment. Trying to shoehorn a GIF-list into a scientific journal is like trying to grow a palm tree in the arctic; while it might technically be possible, you’d have to throw a lot of time, effort and money at the problem for maybe half the success it could have organically in a better environment.
A context-conscious content strategy (say that five times fast…) means understanding the nuanced relationship between a piece of content and its environment and thinking critically about where consumers will experience you content before you create it.
This is something we deal with all the time at Time Inc. Sports Illustrated is very different from People, which is different from Time, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. Each of our 30+ US-based properties presents a unique context for an advertiser’s content, so successfully reaching an audience across multiple properties requires using different tactics and tools to fit each unique environment.
Ultimately, having a context-conscious approach results allows advertisers to have a more flexible, dynamic, and effective content strategy.
Among the environmental factors to consider to create truly native content:
Topic - What does your host publication typically create content about? Is it a general interest title covering a wide variety of topics, or a niche site with a very narrow focus? How can you say something new on that topic? Can you, instead, elaborate on or bring a new perspective to something that’s already been said?
Voice & Tone - What is content in the host publication typically like? Is it educational, entertaining, technical, conversational, humorous, downright irreverent, or some combination thereof? Does the content talk to its consumer as if it were a peer, a student, a professional, a child or something else? Does it address the reader at all? Does it include jokes, industry jargon, obscure cultural references, or curse words?
Format - Is your host a print publication, digital site, mobile app, social network or something else? What forms of media does the publication typically present? Text, photos, videos, audio, galleries, maps, illustrations, timelines, infographics, or some combination thereof? Is text presented as a reported article, review, first-person essay, Q&A, list, poem, or something else?
Navigation - How do people physically experience content here? Do they touch it, read it, hear it, smell it? When they want to move around, do they click, scroll, swipe, or speak aloud? When they’re consuming a piece of content, is there other content visible?
Disclosure - Does the publication typically include sources — living or documented — in its stories? How many? What kind of sources does it consider credible? How does it typically cite those sources? How are contributors identified? How does it label a sponsor’s involvement and how does that impact the layout or presentation of your content?
What happens when “native” content is radically different — in topic, tone, format, navigational experience, or disclosure — from the other content around it? It might just be ignored, sure. But it might also come across as disruptive, in-genuine or insensitive, all of which can cause damage the consumer’s perception of your brand and of your host partner. Eek!
But when all these factors align, the results can be magical. Native advertising that aligns on these factors — like this in-depth exploration of ballet presented by Cole Haan on The New York Times, or the cheeky cat content that Friskies creates with BuzzFeed — is a win-win-win, creating new revenue streams for publishers, delivering valuable content to hungry consumers, and getting your brand message into the eyes and ears of the audience you’re after.