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?