content driving growth

July 5, 2017

For those of us from the era of advertorials and sponsored ads, terms like content marketing and native advertising sound like old wine in a new bottle. So when I started digging, I also decided to use the domain expertise of people who are steeped in this mode of marketing and advertising.

Joe Pulizzi, founder of Content Marketing Institute, says, “If you pay for placement, it is advertising. If you pay for placement of valuable, relevant content in a format similar to the third party site, it is native advertising. If you don’t pay for placement, the content is not advertising. If that content is valuable and relevant, designed to attract a clearly defined audience, and posted on your own or other unpaid platform, it is content marketing”.

If that left you confused, may be you need to stop reading and start watching random videos that must have landed up in your mobile from your multiple WhatsApp groups. But if you think that made sense, read on.

In the good old days, you had advertising which was fully paid for. And you had PR, which was news about your brand that was carried by media because it was of news value or relevant for their readers. Somewhere in the middle of all this, we invented the concept of advertorials, an ad masked in the form of editorial matter. It would be designed to represent the real newspaper news but carried a disclaimer, ‘advertorial’. A few years ago newspapers decided to convert their supplements into wholesale ‘advertorials’. Here the reader was in a sense hoodwinked because the mention of ‘An Advertising Feature’ was often tucked away on the masthead, not in the individual articles carried. In yet another development, food brands offered recipe booklets that were offered with promotional packs. Décor companies created color manuals that were available to consumers who wrote to them. An adhesive company came out with furniture catalogs that are today passed from carpenter to carpenter.

Marketers, especially in the B2B space, figured out that they can leverage the power of the internet. Today, through their own websites, they can get their customers to read useful material that they have produced, and share it with their peers. Companies like IBM put out white papers on important topics that are downloadable from their website. McKinsey Quarterly, which was once in printed form, became a web-based magazine, with all the content freely downloadable.

I would imagine all this was in the domain of content marketing.

so, what is native advertising?

Native advertising is a form of online advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears.

Is it just the good old ‘advertorial’ in fancy new clothes? My digital marketing friends violently disagree. They say native advertising has to deliver valuable content in-stream. It has to recognize the importance of the user experience by presenting all content on-screen, seamless and pretty without disruption of the flow.

They serve two objectives:

  • Creating brand image and emotional connect with consumers
  • Driving consumers to take a particular action like signing up for a program or installing it

Native ads can appear on closed platforms. These are where the brand creates content that is aimed at promoting their own content/website, and they are specific to the platform and do not appear across platforms. Examples of these are sponsored Tweets on Twitter and sponsored posts on Facebook.

Native ads on open platforms are where the same piece of content is presented across multiple platforms simultaneously, but with some variation in the native ad formats. Usually on open platforms, native ads are carried through third party publishing companies.

There are also what are known as hybrid platforms that allow content publishing platforms to install private marketplace where advertisers have the option of bidding for ad spaces through programmatic auctions or real time bidding.

There are different types of native ads. The one that all of us are most familiar with are search ads. These are generally found above or below the organic search results (organic search results appear based on the algorithm of the search engine; you can improve your organic postings by ensuring your website is well SEO calibrated). Except for the small mention of ‘ad’, these native ads look like the search results thrown up. What we need to remember is that these are ads that are carefully written by a smart digital marketer. And often multiple ad units are tested, real time, to help improve the ad efficiency. Just imagine changing your Yellow Pages ads every second, you can do that with native ads in search engines.

In feed ads, units are located within the site’s normal content feed and they appear as if the content has been written by the editorial team of the content site, with some help from the brand team. Sometimes you will also get a mention that the content is promoted by a particular brand. There are no clear guidelines and sometimes what appears as content may in fact be a native ad.

Then there are recommendation widgets, which are ads that are generally identified by words like ‘you might like this’, ‘elsewhere from around the web’, ‘you may have missed’, etc. These are common in news sites.

Finally, there are promoted listings. On ecommerce sites, you may have noticed promoted listings that are promoted in the same way as products or services offered on the site. So a travel site may promote a particular hotel, airline, or packaged tour.


content marketing vs native advertising

Native advertising is rapidly catching on as a way of advertising, since click-through rates for native advertising are dramatically better than for a classic display ad (also known as the banner ad). Reports say that compared to an average display ad, a native ad evokes a 53% improvement in engagement, and 32% of the respondents said that they are more likely to share the content.

We have examined native advertising and its many shades. Does content marketing also have many dimensions?

Content marketing is ideally focused on storytelling with a goal to provide useful content to relevant target audience, without openly trying to sell. In a pioneering move, more than a decade ago, even before the arrival of YouTube, BMW created a series of long-format films called ‘The Hire’ that were watched by avid car lovers. These were big budget extravaganzas made by the biggest names of Hollywood. I would say that was content marketing at its best. There was no attempt to sell or get clicks or site visits. But car lovers saw the films and shared the website link with friends. The grand jury at the annual advertising festival at Cannes decided that it was not ‘advertising’ and did not award the campaign any of its Lions. But a year later, they publicly admitted their mistake and decided to confer a Grand Prix to the BMW films. And as they say, the advertising world has never been the same since then.


The author acknowledges with gratitude the inputs received from Vidyullatha Prakash, Content Marketing Manager at Social Frontier.