My teacher must have noticed that my eyes were transfixed on my lap. She snuck behind me and whipped a worn piece of paper from my hands, probably expecting to find torn pages from Hustler. Instead she found a brochure for a Titanium PowerBook G4.
Apple makes very good print. They have for a long time. And years ago, their brochures were what convinced me that a summer mowing lawns was a small price to pay for The World’s First Titanium Laptop.
Apple no longer issues brochures in the way they did. They’ve focused their energies on the web and they’ve made good work, but little compares to what they released this summer for the Mac Pro and iPhone 5s.
When I first saw the Mac Pro I thought it looked like a garbage can. I then visited Apple’s page for the Mac Pro and I needed a garbage can to collect the drool coming from my mouth. The page fuses text, animation, video, and photography in a way that is seductive and convincing.
The Mac Pro and iPhone advertisements are "native" advertisements in the sense that they take advantage of so many types of new browser technologies to get their message across. And yet, when you talk to publishers about native advertisements they think of something different. Most publishers think a native advertisement is an ad that fits into their pre-existing template and, despite a deliberately small "sponsored" label, is designed to look just like a regular article on their site. The content may be generated and checked by an in-house team but its objective is totally different from the articles on their site.
David Carr and the many other critics of these pseudo-articles are right to say that this is a practice that can ultimately do damage to a brand but they are missing an aspect of this. They assume that the power of these ads comes from the fact that they look like regular articles. This is actually what is holding them back. The pseudo-article is a format that will continue to exist but, just as in print, it’s not the format that will be most distinctive or make publishers the most money.
Good advertisements don’t try to distort the actual author of the message. Yes, we live in an age where Chipotle deliberately hacked its own Twitter account but this is just the means to an end. Those making advertisements will do all they can to entertain you or draw you into a story or idea, but the buildup is to a message that is unequivocally signed by the brand. That’s the association they’re paying millions of dollars to cement. These kinds of advertisements can be integrated natively into publishers' websites, but they won’t look like their articles. They will look like something else.
The only reason native advertisements are possible is because publishers have gotten good at getting you to click on other stories once you land on the page. They offer them to you underneath the article or in the sidebar and are served to you at various levels of sophistication. Some, like HuffPo and BuzzFeed, have turned recommendations into an elaborate internal science where data constantly informs the placement of stories. The result can be mesmerizing.
Landing on a BuzzFeed page is like being served an appetizer at a table placed in the middle of a gourmet buffet:
The thrill of the native ad is that the advertisement exists as an item to be consumed in that buffet, not something adjacent to it.
An incredible amount of eye-tracking data shows that people have become experts at intuitively blocking out any form of banner advertisement. Yet they will examine and frequently interact with the sidebar recommendations of a story because this is the trough from which they are being fed. BuzzFeed has shown that users will also click on these stories even if they are clearly labeled "sponsored" or "partner," and they have proceeded to build a multimillion dollar business around them.
Part of the reason they click is because it’s a safe bet. A user knows that a link from the story well won't take them away from the site they are currently trying to flip through. It is the ideal environment to get people to take a step toward a story.
The next part is where things get really exciting and move beyond what BuzzFeed and every large publisher is currently doing. The lesson here: If you label the post properly you can write the story from the POV of the brand who is paying to put it there.
Imagine for a moment that you see a story like this in the sidebar feed:
Instead of taking you to an article the publisher created, that link takes you to a page that is created by Apple. You don’t leave the site—there is still a small header and a sidebar full of their stories—but the page template is taken over and every pixel underneath the navigation is clearly owned by Apple. And as you may imagine because it’s made by Apple, they make every pixel count:
In many senses, this "native" way of delivering advertisements is much more similar to how advertisements have been delivered for the past 100 years. In print, when a brand buys ad space, they get to fill the page however they want. They can’t outright lie or show too much skin, but the page is theirs and they are rewarded for being creative.
What has changed most massively as we move to the web is what this page is capable of delivering. The web browser gives you photography, motion, animation, and we’re just starting to see the way designers are combining these forms to provoke emotion. What it also gives you, though, is interactivity. A user who clicks on a native ad can be moved enough by the experience to offer up their email address. Or they can buy something directly in the ad without ever leaving the publication.
I’ve spent the summer meeting with media brands like Time, Gawker, Vox Media, Vice, BuzzFeed, Discovery, Digital First, and Hearst. If there is one massive trend among them it is that they are all forming or expanding some sort of in-house creative agency. Some, like Vox, are putting together awesome pieces, but I believe there is such a demand for all this extra in-house creative work because we are in an awkward transition period. Randall Rothenberg is right when he says, "The Definition of Advertising Has Never Been More Unclear."
The promise of the native ad written from the POV of the brand is that it brings clarity to what web advertising is and gives brands a much more incredible canvas to craft their message. Banner advertisements or full page flash takeovers probably aren't going away anytime soon but the potential here is for an advertisement that people will actually want to look at and link to.
Publishers can design a system for delivering native advertisements that works—by simply getting out of the way.