How to succeed at native advertising – and how not to do it

To hear many media executives tell it, "native advertising" will be the solution to their revenue woes. And it's not just the dinosaurs either – Facebook's initial struggles with mobile revenues have seen many pinning their hopes on native advertising for other social networks.

"Native advertising" as a term is well on its way to becoming yet another buzzword. For now, we can take it to mean "anything but banners". For web publishers, this has meant that paid advertising has infiltrated editorial space, and now it's undercover, wearing the same headlines, bylines and layout.

The young pups, Buzzfeed and Quartz, produce this branded content using teams just like the ones producing the publication's own content. It's a quality over quantity play. That's not a bad idea, given the mammoth oversupply of paid media slots online, automatically bid for by tireless, unerring algorithms, which has driven traditional banner advertising prices down to a pittance.

The New York Times threw its hat in the ring as part of its latest redesign, launched this week. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tried to convince us that everything will be fine: Pledging Clarity, The Times Plunges into Native Advertising. When I finished reading the piece, the site suggested I read another article headed "Advertising". I was stunned to see that it was identical in appearance to other articles beside it. But in fact, it wasn't advertising at all – it was a genuine editorial piece in the Media section on the topic of advertising. At least in my case, the confusion and mistrust has already started.

Facebook is finding its audience rapidly ageing as younger, more beautiful upstarts like Snapchat rebuff them. Native advertising on Facebook means incessantly telling me that my friends like Amazon, with a frequency limited only by the depth of the brand's pockets. The result, for me at least, is a news feed that has never been more boring. (In Facebook's defence, their acquisition of Instagram is looking smarter and smarter.)

A smarter approach

Some brands are taking a smarter approach and really succeeding with native advertising. They are bypassing publishing organisations and going straight to independent creators who have built their own audiences on online platforms, reaching tens of millions of viewers in the process. Here's a couple of examples that have caught my eye over the last couple of months.

Mountain Dew, Ubisoft & Devin Super Tramp

"Devin Super Tramp" is a YouTuber who built a following on videos of himself and his friends pulling various extreme sports stunts. There's the daredevil flavour of MTV's Jackass, but less gross and with more health and safety concerns. That makes his videos perfect for brands like Mountain Dew, Ford and Ubisoft. Now Devin's friends wear an occasional Mountain Dew t-shirt on camera and the videos are still just as fun and watchable, and a parkour video for Ubisoft has racked up seven million views. This is advertising that is truly native to the platform. There's no distinction between it and non-paid media. (In fact, these videos themselves have traditional banner and pre-roll ads.)

Fruittare & LaurenLemon

LaurenLemon's colourful Instagram posts have earned her 200,000 followers, who occasionally see a photo featuring a product being promoted in Lauren's signature style.

Samsung & Chase Jarvis

Chase Jarvis is a commercial photographer that has built an audience with candid and copious blogging. Samsung ran a smart campaign where Jarvis arranged and documented a crazy photo shoot with trampolines and cannons of coloured powder. Jarvis reviewed the images on set on Samsung monitors. The clever part of this is how well targeted Samsung's message is – Jarvis' audience of photography enthusiasts and professionals overlaps perfectly with Samsung's market for this product.

20th Century Fox & Casey Neistat

The marketing team for the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, gave filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat $25,000 to do something to promote the film. Neistat took the money to the Philippines and spent it on aid for those affected by the terrible typhoon there, racking up 2.5 million views for the video he made about it. Previously Neistat also made a low-fi ad for Mercedes and a video for Nike that racked up over 10 million views.

As always though, the Onion put it best: SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement. (Hi, NSA!)

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