The Natives Are Restless

Last week we were at the WAN-IFRA Innovation Day in Amsterdam, talking about the 10 Rules Of Digital Advertising. Most of them were really variations on the One Rule Of Advertising we talk about all the time – that if people feel nothing, they’ll do nothing, so you need to orient your advertising around emotion rather than use it to persuade.

One thing we didn’t talk much about was content marketing and native advertising, which some people feel is the future of the whole digital shebang. Native advertising is in the news today, as Yahoo!’s $1bn+ acquisition of social blogging platform Tumblr is widely considered to be a bet on native advertising as a platform.


Image via Business Insider

So it’s worth writing a post about native, and where it fits in our overall conception of advertising and how it works.

Native advertising is the generic term for advertising and marketing whose format is indistinguishable from the standard content unit on a platform – things like promoted Tweets, promoted stories on Facebook, or advertorial content on Buzzfeed.

Tumblr, whose CEO David Karp isn’t a great fan of most traditional ad formats, had been moving into this with promoted stories and posts. So users will scroll through their feed as normal, but some of the posts are being inserted into their experience for marketing purposes – the other day I got one about The Hangover III, for instance.

Native advertising is exciting because it obeys one of the rules of digital advertising – don’t get in the way. In the way of what? Of decision. Most decisions are made quickly and intuitively, and people don’t like them being interrupted or made complex by extraneous stimulus. Things like YouTube pre-rolls or pop-ups you click through to reach a site don’t obey this rule: they get in the way, shoving themselves between a decision and its fulfilment.

But Google AdWords don’t get in the way, and nor do promoted tweets and Tumblr stories – as long as they don’t overwhelm the user experience. Online, user experience, advertising, and product become less and less divisible as categories – native advertising recognises this fact and adapts accordingly, not screwing up the experience, and maybe even adding to it.

And there’s something which makes Tumblr’s native advertising particularly rich in possibilities. We know that advertising lives or dies by the emotion it creates, and the playful, visual style of Tumblr is potentially highly emotional. Promoted Tweets, for instance, don’t give creative the canvas to make people laugh, react or feel good that the far more flexible Tumblr will

That’s the good news – native advertising has great potential to be emotional, and to work with the grain of decision, not against it. The only problem is reach and measurement – can Tumblr get its advertising in front of enough people to be effective, and can it prove that effectiveness?

But in principle, native advertising and emotional advertising should be natural bedfellows on Tumblr. It’ll be fascinating to see how well that opportunity is taken.

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