Native Advertising and the Paid vs. Earned Media Debate

Remember the “advertorial?” It looked like a news story, but was it actually a shill for a brand trying to hock its wares? It’s back, but this time it’s called “Native Advertising.”

Ask 10 people what native advertising is, and you will get 10 different answers. The gist: “Sponsored content that looks and feels more like the website’s editorial content and less like an ad.” As we vie for consumer attention, digital media is evolving to deliver more engagement for more demanding brand clients. The very measurability of digital may be its downfall—if we obsess over metrics that may or may not be the right key performance indicator to measure.

Is Native Advertising The Right Engagement?

Native advertising, if done well—meaning it is relevant and adding value, and if disclosed to the reader as paid content—can be quite powerful. The problem is: There are more examples of native done poorly than of native done well. And the poor executions are simply following the money and delivering the “engagements” sought by brands—but are they the right engagements? Are we too obsessed with quantity and not focused enough on quality?

Digital media is changing in other ways and one important distinction is the notion of “earned” media. This media could just as easily be called “PR.” Earned media leverages the often free services of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and others to attempt to get viral “exposures” and word-of-mouth engagement. It is the tweet that gets retweeted by others and the YouTube video that gets over one million views. In rare cases, these are really creative messages and even well done creative advertisements. But often these too push the envelope of acceptability in order to tap into the raunchy and edgy side of the populous to light a viral fuse that explodes as a tipping point of pass-along value.

For brands, pushing on the cutting edge of raunchy to get a retweet can be dangerous. What earned media is worth placing the President of the United State next to Zach Galifianakis in an exchange of barbs? Was that “Between Two Ferns” episode worth it or was it more damaging to the “brand” of the U.S. President?

Before WestJet’s Ad Went Viral, 36 Million Never Heard Them

A better approach is to leverage true creativity: Something like the WestJet Christmas miracle (Google it and spend the five minutes watching the video). It is great earned media and great for the brand. I had never heard of WestJet, a small Canadian airline, before this viral video—but now almost 36 million have watched it.

The flexibility, measurability and viral nature of digital media are blurring the lines of traditional responsibility in many ways. Publishers are producing less credible editorial and running more native advertising; advertisers and agencies are starting to “publish” more in an attempt to earn impressions, eyeballs and engagement; and consumers, as always, are voting with their feet and their attention span.

As a marketer it is important to note: Quality execution of these tactics requires different skill sets. While pursuing either native advertising or earned media, make sure that you have the right team and the right experienced partners in place because a bad execution is far worse than no execution, but a great execution is a home run.

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