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4 epic native advertising fails

4 epic native advertising fails Rebecca Lieb

As a research analyst, I just completed a study of native advertising. The report, based on months of research and dozens of interviews, contains eight critical recommendations for successful native advertising campaigns.

We help our clients incorporate these recommendations in their native advertising strategies. What happens when best practices and tried-and-true practices are disregarded or ignored? That's what iMedia's editors asked me to share in this article. Not for the sake of schadenfreude really, but as a set of object lessons. So let's take a look at a handful of native advertising fails and also map them to the whys of their shortcomings.

4 epic native advertising fails

Best practices matter in native advertising a lot, and soon they'll matter even more. Recently, 73 percent of Online Publishers Association members said they offer some form of digital advertising, a number that is swelling daily. Spending in the sector is expected to swell to $4.57 billion by 2017, though that's a figure that bears some scrutiny, given "native advertising" does not yet bear the distinction of a formal, much less universally-agreed upon, definition.

Nonetheless, if we can agree that native advertising is a form of converged media (regardless of whether it appears on a publisher site or a social platform) that combines paid media (i.e., an ad) with owned media (i.e., content that isn't "advertising-y" in nature), best practices and success elements do begin to emerge.

Trust and transparency

The Atlantic-Scientology debacle is the poster child of native advertising gone horribly -- no, hideously -- wrong. Under a small-ish "Sponsor Content" box, the site published a sunny and upbeat piece about the extremely controversial leader of the Church of Scientology: "David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year." An uproar ensued, causing the piece to be taken down in short order, and an apology was issued. In short order The Onion followed up with "SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement."

In a further apology issued the following day, The Atlantic stated, "We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way."

What's a best practice in this area? Disclosure, transparency, and trust are non-negotiable. Period. And come on, we've danced this dance more than once: With search engine advertising, paid blogging, and word-of-mouth marketing. Do we really even need to have this conversation? Disclose to readers that it's a paid placement. Link to the relevant editorial policy. Create a channel for inquiry.

There. That wasn't so bad now, was it?

Strange bedfellows

The Economist teamed up with Buzzfeed to create a promotional listicle entitled "Dare2GoDeep," the stories behind the venerable publications' serious hard news and policy coverage. The piece, and indeed, the pairing, was widely mocked as "inane" and "cringeworthy." It is kind of hard to draw the line between one of the world's most respected news magazines and a website known for its lists of all things LOL and feline.


At the heart of native advertising is content marketing, which is soft, not hard, sell. Last holiday season, "A Gift Guide for Surviving Your Family at Home This Holiday" on Gawker Media read more shill than article. The body copy doesn't really deliver on the headline's promise, which feels bait-and-switch.

Collaboration and earned media

I hate to single out Buzzfeed again (the publication does so much native advertising so very well), but last August the site was involved in an imbroglio that should have been nipped in the bud rather than allowed to spiral into scandal. A conservative anti-abortion group published its own listicle bashing Planned Parenthood in Buzzfeed's then-new community section. The post violated Buzzfeed's community guidelines, yet it wasn't immediately taken down, causing a media, as well as social media, fallout. The Guardian followed up: "BuzzFeed is taking trolling to a new level by pandering to right-wing nuts."

Beyond social media fallout and bad PR

So there you are, the crash and burn scenarios. May they never happen to your native advertising campaigns. Other native advertising fails may not be as public in terms of flaming out, but they fall just as flat. First on the list are campaigns that contain no element of conversion. By "conversion," I mean there's no desired action for the consumer to take (e.g., visit a landing page, click something, download something, fill out a form -- anything). Limiting native advertising to branding or impressions is likely limiting it. And it also leads to subtle fail No. 2.

Lack of measurement/ineffective metrics

Yes, native advertising is new, and advertisers (as well as publishers and social platforms) are still determining how best to measure it and indeed, how best to use it and for what. That's no excuse to disregard metrics and KPIs. You can always change them later, but if you don't begin measuring meaningful elements from the beginning, you have no baseline from which to move forward. Too often, perhaps because there's a tendency for publishers to attempt to drive native campaigns without the involvement of agencies or other third parties, editorial metrics such as "time spent on page" become the de facto yardsticks for what should be deeper and more sophisticated looks at ad effectiveness.

Content portability

One of the big problems you'll be hearing about with native advertising is its lack of scale (meaning you can't take a custom execution for Facebook and move it over to Tumblr, The New York Times, or Twitter). Native means native to the publisher or platform, so one creative execution certainly doesn't fit all. But with a strong content strategy and "modular content" that can be broken into component parts, content can travel with a consistent voice, tone, look, and feel, making your brand integrate more easily and natively in different native campaigns.

Forgetting the social component

When was the last time you shared a banner ad? Right. That's exactly what I thought. It's different with native advertising. At least, it's supposed to be. Sure, the placement is paid, but the creative is content that's entertaining, compelling, edgy, educational, funny, and ideally, share-able. It's that share-ableness that can extend the reach of the campaign and greatly amplify the media buy. So don't forget to bake it in. We define "native" as paid and owned, but it's earned media that comprises the essential third leg of the stool to keep it on an even keel.

Integration and synchronization

Let's review what we've been discussing around native advertising: Creative, media buying, content strategy, measurement and analytics, social platforms, publishers, and agencies. Geez, there are a lot of moving parts here, aren't there? To get native right, all (or at least a lot of) these constituencies are going to have to work together and understand each other's roles. Collaboration must be incentivized, often across different departments, vendors, and media and agency partners. It's complicated!

The really good news is that when you solve that complication with training, clarity, understanding, communication, and agility, you'll not only be positioned for success with native advertising but also be better equipped to tackle digital campaigns across the paid, owned, and earned media landscape, which makes investing in disruption and complexity a worthwhile consideration.

Are you ready to go native?

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Businessman fail" image via Shutterstock.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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