Forget ‘Native,’ It’s About a Content Mindset

You can’t get very far in a conversation about marketing these days without the word “content” being bandied about. It is now the advertising equivalent to “plastics” in “The Graduate.”

And yet there is something going on as advertisers seek to break free from the constraints of standardized ad units that are starting to show their age. Publishers, pummeled by declining rates for commoditized standard placements, are eager to get on board the content train. It’s the recipe for a gold-rush mentality that can sometimes cease to be moored to reality. Converting banners into advertorials won’t cut it.

Steve Rubel, chief content officer at Edelman, believes the entire debate over how to label things like native advertising, content marketing and the like misses the true challenge: Marketers need to adopt a content mindset. His fear is the rush to embrace “content” as an alternative to banners will result in shortcuts and a temptation to lose focus on the reader.

We tried to put some definitions around native advertising. What’s your take?
All of the terms we have used to date are buzzwords. They will quickly become boilerplate on hundreds of Twitter and LinkedIn profiles. And soon someone will be poking fun at the number of profiles that have such terms in them. All of this is simply advertising. What’s new now is that more and more of it must closely resemble editorial and that it is positioned as just as important. This creates new opportunities, but it will require a content mindset vs. a message mindset to succeed. And it’s unclear how long that will take.

Define content mindset.
It’s about putting the content needs ahead of the marketing needs. Most marketers wrap content inside a marketing message. Good journalists do the opposite. We need to think like them, with the reader’s needs ahead of our own in the creative process. It’s about being servant.

It’s interesting you mention a “content mindset,” because that would appear to argue those who can do this best will be the publishers themselves. That’s why BuzzFeed does so much work with clients to get their advertising content right. Do you see the role of advertising agencies declining in this area?
I believe that the publishers could become a significant threat to the ad agencies through their content studios. Although that’s not their intention, the press will invariably disintermediate agencies as they are forced to adapt to a new economic reality.

But you delineate between advertising agencies and PR shops here, right?
I also, obviously, believe this is a huge opportunity for the public relations industry. The PR discipline is more respected than ever thanks to our work in social media and in advising companies on business strategy, not just communications strategy. No one outside of the press itself understands the promise and pitfalls of operating in and editorial environment. When PR is at its best, it serves as a strong intermediary that generates good outcomes for the brand, the media and, above all, the reader/viewer.

Is too much made of reader confusion when it comes to advertising content? After all, do they really care so long as it’s good content?
This is a serious issue that needs to get solved. There is responsibility on both sides here. I liken the situation to a patient who receives an artificial heart. The media is the body, and advertising is the heart that keeps it alive, supplying nourishments to all key structures like the brain — editorial. The existing heart (the banner ad) doesn’t have the strength anymore to sustain all that the body wants to do because of the laws of supply and demand putting pressure on CPMs. Natural causes, if you will. So we are replacing our heart with an artificial heart: content as ad. Should the patient reject this solution, however, there is currently no other way to sustain the patient. There is no other viable path to revenue. And that’s cause for concern. Therefore, it’s in everyone’s best interest to make this work. What I fear, however, is that no one is checking with the reader. And we are all moving too fast. My hope is that the major trade associations on both sides — those representing marketers and publishers — begin to set standards that advocate for the reader. But they seem to be very hands off for now.

That’s interesting you think readers are being harmed. Is the biggest threat to advertising content lost trust or indifference/ineffectiveness? Do we have any idea this works better than banners?
To be clear, I don’t think they are harmed now. But they could be. The big threat is decreased trust to the media brand. Under that scenario, everyone loses. But that’s why I am optimistic we will find the right model. It is in everyone’s best interest. The optimistic case is that advertisers get increased awareness and engagement. The media gets to continue to sustain journalism. Readers continue to get journalistic content and — if done well — value-added advertiser content as well that’s more interesting than banners. That’s my hope. But we have a ways to go.

Image via Shutterstock

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