Advertorial vs native advertising: sisters or twins?

 Peita Pacey, group strategy director, Carat Sydney
By Peita Pacey, group strategy director, Carat Sydney | 22 October 2015
CArat Group strategy director

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet, an itch on my elbow, a stone in my shoe. It’s irritating and frankly I just wish it would go away. 

It’s ‘native advertising’.

Okay, so I don’t actually wish the concept of native advertising would go away. In fact, native advertising is actually a very useful tool in the arsenal of a media strategist. What bothers me, however, is the fact that no one – myself included – seems to know exactly what it is.

Sure, we all have an approximate idea – we know it’s advertising designed to not look like advertising, in the most basic of terms. Beyond that, however, the definition starts to err on the side of subjective.

It would appear the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) agrees with me, saying in a recently published article: “Native has become a hot topic in the advertising marketplace, but for the practice to flourish further, it needs consensus on definitions and structure.”

With their growth forecasts estimating a 300% increase in investment into ‘native’ over the coming years, I could not agree more.

Having being invited to join the judging panel at a recent industry awards, the need for a clear and concise definition became even more pertinent when reviewing the entries in the Native Advertising category.

Now, I was pretty excited to see some fantastic examples of branded content in these entries, a great integration of editorial, branding and media placement all rolled into one.

But native advertising it was not. At least not according to my definition, which runs more like this: “Camouflaged content that blends into its surrounds; aligned to category but brand agnostic.”

Robust discussion amongst the judging panel ensues.

Are native ads subliminal messages delivered through genius integration of brands and editorial driving category desire, but mopped up by one clever brands placement? Are they less overt, advertorial-style constructs, clearly showcasing the two together? Or are they just sponsorship with a slightly sexier name?

Let’s just say it was a lively afternoon.

The fact that most media people you speak to will, to some degree, agree with all three statements is what makes me itchy. If we don’t even know what it is, how can we be expected to leverage this tool to its full potential?

Given I’m a strategist, I don’t mind a bit of research, so I looked it up.

Google helped. Not. It just told me to Wiki it.

Wiki used jargon and only talked about online native advertising and ’integrating across platforms’.

I kept going. Digi Day told me it’s when “an ad unit can only be bought and displayed on one platform”. That didn’t seem right to me (or to Wiki it seems).

Next I went to the Content Marketing Institute and they told me this: “Native advertising looks a bit like content marketing, but in native advertising, you are renting someone else’s content distribution platform, without pimping a product or service.”

So it’s definitely NOT an advertorial then.

They also said that it’s different to content marketing, which has the “objective of driving profitable customer action by changing or enhancing consumer behavior”.

This surprised me. Isn’t behaviour change resulting in a profitable customer action exactly what we’re trying to achieve via native?

Now more confused than when I started, I kept digging. Hours later, deep in the rabbit hole, I stumbled across a quote at that seemed to sum it all up: “In 2013, when native advertising started to rise in popularity, the Harvard Business Review did some research to try to define what differentiated this strategy from an advertorial. The conclusion? Not much.”

Finally, after all this and just to be extra thorough, I ran the question by my colleagues. The following three things became abundantly clear in their answers:

1. There is no concise definition of what native advertising is. Everyone interprets it slightly differently, but essentially advertorials are native advertising.
2. If you specialise in digital communications, your definition is extremely different to those who work across offline channels.
3. Native advertising is basically just a fancier name for linking brands, editorial, and clever media placement together.

So now I’m exhausted and need a lie down. My desire for a clear, ‘black and white’ definition of where the boundaries of native advertising start and end has not exactly been satiated, but maybe that’s the whole point?

If native advertising is so creatively confounding and obtuse at times that even the people creating it are unable to precisely define it, it stands to reason that the line is just as blurry for consumers – something that might just work in our favour.

Peita Pacey
Group Strategy Director
Carat Sydney

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