Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
49

The Pretty New Web and the Future of "Native" Advertising

Something is going on with the Internet, and, once again, it's fun, but maybe not that fun. There's a rash of actually quite cool new "products"—services, websites, "apps" (sigh)—and they have a lot in common. From our pals at Branch to things like Medium and Svbtle (oh that name) and on back to Pinterest, and then forward to a few other projects in development, well… there's a visual language going on, for one thing, and it's like John Herrman writes:

It's an internet where every blog is Daring Fireball, where every post looks like Instapaper, where every discussion is led by its rightful leaders, and where ads are considered no better than spam. It's barren but design-forward, and, at least at the moment, kind of elitist.

It's really interesting that these "sites" want their appearance for users to be visually unified, and it's also extremely telling that these "sites" are overtly rejecting display advertising.

"Web publishing tools" were first about easy customization, from Blogger to Livejournal, with the last big monster being Tumblr. (Though the funny thing about Tumblr is, for all the time tweens put in to tweaking their "themes," nobody really reads their sites except by the internal "dashboard." So really, Tumblr was the genius publishing tool that transitioned us into "apps.") After Twitter, that's all really over. Twitter is for sure an "app" not a "website" or a "publishing tool"—it's not something you make "look like you." You don't bring Twitter to you and make it yours, you go to it.

Now one beloved troll, I mean, VISIONARY (totally same difference, no?), is calling for the end of web pages. This is an appealing notion! "Most users on the web spend most of their time in apps," begins our pal Anil Dash. (He promised a citation on that stat later. I'm sure it's true, if you count Facebook!) And: "Most media companies on the web spend all of their effort putting content into content management systems which publish pages." Anil's sort of right, but he's also boosting an idea about business who act like—and design like—they have no interest whatsoever in being businesses. Producing a "feed" subsumed in the apps of our time is not a business. It might (SORRY) own the means of its production but it won't own the means of its revenue.

Except, of course, they all do have an interest in being a business. Or will. It's great to build a fun product! But it's not like people are going to spend millions on making something and have it be a happy write-off in three years.

The hot word in advertising right now is "native." If I hear "native" one more time this week, oof, I swear. As with all terms in advertising, it's a word that doesn't make much sense on its face. (Ask me about "stock and flow" someday.) What "native" means is: it's not in an ad box. All "native" means is that advertisers are now getting to come closer to presenting advertising that is less distinguishable from what they like to call "content," AKA the stuff people make that people go to "apps" and "sites" to see. We (along with everyone else!) are expanding our native advertising! There are really good ways to do it, I think, and I think over the next three months we'll be doing a better job with it! I even believe, particularly in the cases of "brought-to-you-by" sponsored editorial "content," that readers and viewers of good things are often happy to see that a sponsor paid for it to exist! It also really helps if you try to only take good advertising, that's a good match for where it's published. (Hard to do, but a worthwhile fight.)

And there are also really less good ways to do it. Some of them pretty horrendous. I won't get into the less good ways that some people do. (Winky emoticon goes here.)

So the move towards these "ad-free" apps and sites coincides nicely with the move in digital ad budgets to "native" advertising. Because, when it comes time to make money, seems like they're going to have only native advertising, and no "display" advertising. (And if they're talking about how advertising disgusts them, well, history suggests they'll turn a corner.)

The anti-advertising bias—as Dash put it, "page-based sites are cramming every corner and bit of white space on their sites with ads that only ever decrease in effectiveness until they are made even larger and more intrusive every few years"—has a strong chance of resulting in advertising that you'll wish was crammed into an isolated box.

Most of these "apps" currently have a huge ton of money behind them, and a lot of resources, and this money-making idea will be a second-wave scheme for them. (If you look at the job titles at a place like Branch, you'll notice that none of them have "business" or "revenue" in them.) I mean that's kind of wonderful, that people get to grow and build like that! But when they get to it, if they don't cook up some wacky subscription model or something surprising (I won't rule that out!), they'll likely be running advertising that has a high opportunity to be deceptive—or at least, intrusive in a way that no display ad could ever be.

Unlike Pinterest, none of these sites seems (to me, from way outside) to have an opportunity to become a "marketplace," where they make money off percentage of sales or affiliate arrangements. And Pinterest also has a great opportunity, like Facebook, in selling "brand profiles." As in, "here are 50,000 women aged 24 to 28 who live in the Midwest who love socks, cats and flowers, have at them."

What do they have? They have non-display advertising. Twitter's "promoted tweets" and "promoted trends" are pretty much the leading vanguard of "native" for now. You know what? It's not actually that great or cool a model. It's not terrible or damaging or anything. But the brilliant principle of Twitter is that you create your own universe. Everything that's there is something you've chosen—oh, except of course those tweets from Tampax or Home Depot or some other terrifically wonderful brand. (Uh, P.S., contact John@TheAwl.com for exciting native advertising opportunities!)

It's fine to want your cool indie product-cake and to want to later IPO-eat it too. (That sentence doesn't really work, I know, but come on.) But why aren't we in a time where we've flipped the focus on business around to the front? I mean, not all the way.

But maybe halfway? The late-day pasting-on of revenue programs to pretty products makes monster hybrids, and that just makes a lot of Dr. Frankesteins sad. It's a little galling after they've all made it clear just how revolting they find advertising to find them circling back around later.

So if, as Dash says, display advertising gets more and more aggressive over time, as users get accustomed to it—well, what does that process look like for native? When advertising gets inserted into all your "streams" and "feeds" and "apps" to the point where you don't notice it any more, how do you think the makers of that advertising will respond? And how do you think big, expensive, revenue-less business will respond?

49 Comments / Post A Comment

hershmire (#233,671)

Sponsored posts?

am stallings (#236,982)

@hershmire Obsessively disclaimed sponsored posts have been my bread 'n' butter for several years, so my experience suggests you may be right.

hershmire (#233,671)

@Ariel Meadow Stallings@facebook Want to go out for Newcastle beers after work?

am stallings (#236,982)

@hershmire …if you're in Seattle, sure.

synchronia (#3,755)

@Ariel Meadow Stallings@facebook Yeah, I really think you (and also Meg Keene of course) are getting this right! It felt like you were doing our wedding vendor research for us, which is how it should be.

Another example is the posts that Angie Cox from YouLookFab writes for Nordstrom during their sales, where she says which of their pieces she thought were most interesting and worked best for her regular personal stylist clients. To me it seems like it comes down to the writer being willing to only take on products they actually think are great and the advertiser being willing to have the writer's real opinion posted, especially when there's an ongoing relationship that's about mutually becoming part of each other's branding (rather than a one-off review).

hershmire (#233,671)

@Ariel Meadow Stallings@facebook It's an Awl product placement thing.

am stallings (#236,982)

@synchronia Thank you!

@hershmire I had a feeling there was an inside joke there that I wasn't getting. *does awkward shuffle toward the exit*

Dave Braun@twitter (#237,033)

@hershmire Twitter and Youtube publishers can earn a living by using the MyLikes platform to get paid for sponsored posts on a cost-per-click basis. It's a great example of native advertising with no production costs.

Moff (#28)

When advertising gets inserted into all your "streams" and "feeds" and "apps" to the point where you don't notice it any more, how do you think the makers of that advertising will respond?

This is such a weird problem, because I suspect people often didn't notice advertising back in the bygone days of print, too. But it's only since it went online that we've had evidence of as much. I mean, the tone of the web-advertising conversation always seems to be that we're, like, yearning for that halcyon age where people paid attention to ads. But really it's just a yearning for that halcyon age where advertisers bought ads regardless of knowing whether people actually looked at them.

Also, it is weird that, just because you can click on web ads, whether people do is a measure of their effectiveness. I suppose that is part of the conversation now too — "Hey, even if it only gets x number of clicks, x number of readers are still seeing it" — but it does feel like, with the web, we're asking ads to do more when we don't even have a great handle on exactly how much they did in the olden days.

julebsorry (#5,783)

@Moff THANK YOU. Advertisers are demanding ridiculously granular metrics, with the idea that "well, it happened on a computer, and so every tiny piece of information related to this ad must have been recorded somewhere, right?" (as if it just happens automatically…). They want metrics for "this ad for x dollars led to EXACTLY $y in new revenue" which is crazy…seeing an ad for ice cream on tv OR on a website may make me think later in the day, "Hey, ice cream! Sounds great!" There's never been a way to capture that before, and I don't really understand why it's so imperative now.
And don't get me started on the idea that customers are out there pleading to have "personal relationships" with their favorite brands and just haven't been given the right opportunity yet. Manufacturers: your products often are very boring. No matter how excited you personally feel about them, it's unlikely that we, the buying public, want to share that excitement (see exhibit a: Miracle Whip – just fucking show us a picture of Miracle Whip and hope we'll remember at the store later. Stop making this relationship so complicated!)

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

@Moff: I agree. And it compounds the problem that ads are everywhere: buses, bus stops, sidewalks, in legit mail from unrelated companies whose services I use, and of course radio and the big daddy, TV.

The more it becomes ubiquitous, the easier it is to ignore. Unless it features hot bodies. But that doesn't mean I'll buy their Pontiac, or whatever it might be.

Moff (#28)

@julebsorry: Yeah, there's something very sad about branding and branding attempts via social media. Like, you're a bank. I don't want to be friends with you. I don't want to hear about the event you held. I don't even really want to read an article about tips on refinancing my mortgage. There's a real pathetic-ness to most businesses' social media postings, like they know the shit is boring and not anything they'd ever read or care about, but they're hoping some magic happens if they go through the motions, or at least that their bosses don't understand Twitter and Facebook anyway and will keep giving them a paycheck for doing so.

Sorry, this is a bit of a tangent. But yeah, if there's any personal relationship to be had, it's not going to be because of a quirky campaign or an allegedly hip spokesperson or something. If companies want to build relationships, they should be using the web and especially social media for omsbudsmanship, and not just in the sense of reputation management.

Moff (#28)

@SidAndFinancy: I honestly don't understand how advertising works. I guess, like, when Taco Bell finally came out with the Doritos taco shell (that seemed like it took about twenty years too long, right?), that was something I wanted to know.

jfruh (#713)

@Moff I've often wondered if, like, advertising NEVER worked, and that we enjoyed a centure of cultural production subsidized by Don Draper-style charlatans, bamboozling money out of companies to support the arts, money that will never really earn a return on investment, and only computers have made this lie clear.

Moff (#28)

@jfruh: I have wondered that SAME thing. I suppose, though, that we've gotten a lot of useful psychological research out of the whole enterprise, not to mention some decent art.

Leon (#6,596)

@jfruh @jfruh – I work in a field where, while I'm not an advertiser myself, a lot of what I do is create infrastructure for ads to be seen on little glowing rectangles everywhere you go. Like Minority Report, as we exasperatedly affirm when people ask what we do.

And…I don't know a whole lot about advertising on the web specifically. But I do know a lot about ads people see out in the world, and especially mobile interaction with ads.

People who can be enticed to interact with an ad buy more of the stuff being advertised than average consumers. Probably they would anyway – most likely they're interacting with the brand BECAUSE they like it. But it's still a way to KEEP them engaged, which is important.

As for place-based advertising – that definitely works. We know from a long line of comparision studies that if I advertise a thing in a place, sales will increase relative to sales in a comparable place without the ad. Certain kinds of ads work better than others. Certain kinds of places are more susceptible to this than the web.

All of this to say nothing about the article itself. In my experience, ads that work best have no words, are simple, and display what it is that is attractive about the product (sex doesn't seem to sell, really.) If your product sucks, your ads tend not to do anything, really.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@jfruh o it's measurable, all right. One surprising but totally true thing is: the more annoying an ad is, the better; I used to run ad campaigns for web properties in the late 90s and was consistently stunned by the predictability of this. Noisy, flashing banners attract more clicks, period. And this has been a known phenom since "Lucky Strike Green Goes To War" in 1942 or whatever. The only thing that stops all advertising from being deliberately, colossally annoying all the time is the need to protect at least the apparent integrity of the content that carries it.

I think the best book I ever read touching on these issues, maybe the best business book I've ever read really, is How I Made $1,000,000 in Mail-Order by E. Joseph Cossman (he of the Spud Gun; a glorious book, for reals.)

KenWheaton (#401)

"Most users on the web spend most of their time in apps," begins our pal Anil Dash. (He promised a citation on that stat later. I'm sure it's true, if you count Facebook!)

And that's when you should have clicked close tab.

@KenWheaton Maybe we could monetize the close tab?

KenWheaton (#401)

@sorry your heinous Patent that!

anildash (#487)

@KenWheaton :(

khuramsony (#243,948)

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rex (#557)

My guess is that most of those "native" (that word!) ad forms will get sifted out in the next couple years and become standards like everything else. (Recall, the web banner was Wired's native unit first.)

I already see something happening where brands are buying into the notion of being "content creators" (hey, there's another post for ya), but they don't have any idea what to do with it. "Um, let's put it on Buzzfeed." Then what? "Hm, maybe it works on Gawker?" Nope, oh well.

The future that Battelle hints at here seems in line with how this will all progress: http://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/05/on-thneeds-and-the-death-of-display.php

All that said, I'm gloomy on platforms right now too. And I think Anil is over-determining his Foursquare/Instagram/whatever feed, which are distinctly personal, not mass. Streams aren't the future; links are.

In this case, the future is the past.

rex (#557)

Oh, and I want to hear your "stock and flow" rant sometime.

NinetyNine (#98)

@rex Would appreciate it the form of a 'Reach and Frequency' parody.

Those Branch kids seem kind of young.

zidaane (#373)

@NotAndersonCooper Someone older is interested in foam couches and whiteboards? It gets harder to fake enthusiasm when you're older.

Yamara (#9,395)

You know how "subliminal" ads are supposed to make you do a double-take when you think you see one word, and realize you had dropped a letter, so it was actually something else, but the idea of the first word is still stuck in your head as you examine the ad more closely the second time?

That's what I keep experiencing when I read "native".

caw_caw (#5,641)

Thanks Choire, this was interesting.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Is this "native" advertising for Medium?

SeanP (#4,058)

@Lockheed Ventura If so, then I guess it worked? Because I went to look at it. But I think I'm too old to figure it out – if the site had any functionality beyond allowing you to make something that looked like a Powerpoint title slide, I couldn't figure out what it was.

Rod T (#33)

I think less of a person when they "like" a brand. I'm just of that naive school that thinks that people will buy great products even with little or no advertising. I worked for three years in marketing for Absolut and there would be this conversation from time to time about how Ketel One would continue to erode Absolut's market share and what marketing would should employ to counter it. The only real answer was to lower price by comparison to Ketel. (Ketel was typically one or two dollars higher in price back then.) It was a better product and lowering our price would seemed the accurate reaction. Instead ads and POP were made about "heritage" and "quality" which really only served to clutter Absolut's great simple advertising.

What was my point? Oh yes, all advertising is a waste of time to reach someone like me because Generation X. Like?

Rod T (#33)

I think less of a person when they "like" a brand. I'm just of that naive school that thinks that people will buy great products even with little or no advertising. I worked for three years in marketing for Absolut and there would be this conversation from time to time about how Ketel One would continue to erode Absolut's market share and what marketing would should employ to counter it. The only real answer was to lower price by comparison to Ketel. (Ketel was typically one or two dollars higher in price back then.) It was a better product and lowering our price would seemed the accurate reaction. Instead ads and POP were made about "heritage" and "quality" which really only served to clutter Absolut's great simple advertising.

What was my point? Oh yes, all advertising is a waste of time to reach someone like me because Generation X. Like?

Rod T (#33)

@Rod T: Wait, no, this is what I was leading up to: Change "native" to "naive" and you might just explain everything advertisey forever.

zidaane (#373)

I'm a little pissed you got me to watch that Branch Vimeo.
I don't think there's a shower for that.

hmmm – interesting meditation on internet advertising.

I'd like to hear more about the relationship between internet advertising/publishing and the value of academic labor/writing labor.

There's fun stuff to be said – though I haven't the time to say it as fully as I'd like – about labor-power, and whether the labor people perform when they write is comparable to other kinds of labor (like building a house or writing code).

I think it's important to pay writerly people a lot of money, because I think the work they do is more important, generally, than bankers, administrators, etc. But it's hard to do that in a world where the only way to "monetize" writing is to package it on a physical product (paper) and sell that product or distribute it against ("with") ads online.

It's also hard to do in a world where most people don't have access to an education that makes reading the kind of writing that's featured on The Awl (for example) enjoyable and fun and witty and referential.

So – kudos. Also, please more like this!

SeanP (#4,058)

@Spencer Janyk@twitter: "I think it's important to pay writerly people a lot of money, because I think the work they do is more important, generally, than bankers, administrators, etc."

Ok, why do you think this? I mean, I think it's important to pay recreational fishermen such as myself a lot of money, because fishing is also more important than banking, administrating, etc. But people are not necessarily willing to pay a lot of money for things because you or I think they're important.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@SeanP I think a more interesting way to look at it is the money we, as a society, allocate for culture overall, and how that money is distributed. We are willing to pay billions and billions of dollars for Batman movies, for example. You could run most of the traditional elite East Coast print media on the budget of one superhero blockbuster per year.

So the money IS there, but people would rather give it to see muscly men in spandex stand next to explosions than read articles about books or museums or The Way We Look At Explosions Now. Why?

ps5959935 (#237,017)

Thank for coment

SeanP (#4,058)

Re: Tumblr themes. Sort of tangential to the subject, but Tumblr themes all have one thing in common: they suck. I would spend less time in the dash if I could force people's crappy themes back into the default dashboard theme. Also: why is it impossible to reply to a post (as opposed to "liking" or reblogging) except in the dashboard view?

Ok, clearly I'm about to let loose a torrent of rage at some of Tumblr's more stupid aspects, so I'll stop hijacking the discussion here.

David Cho (#3)

There needs to be a shift in how marketers conceptualize success for online advertising, until that point, everyone will be beholden to the word "native" and whatever the next "native" is.

JebF (#237,034)

great post.

what about fancy, targeted ad networks like The Deck? Where do they fit into this conversation? Is this approach scalable/practical for other publishers?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

It would be interesting to see if you could just show your editorial calendar to advertisers and get them to sponsor particular posts. Or would they find that too risky?

westbrowk (#237,127)

what a wonderful insight on advertising

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