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Remember when people were excited about native advertising, content marketing or whatever name you prefer for branded content development? The premise sounded solid -- going beyond messaging and taglines to provide relevant, substantive information that b-to-b customers would actually value. All too predictably, though, native advertising has devolved into the following types of white noise:
- Skin-deep content cobbled together on deadline from equally superficial sources.
- Listicles that map neatly to the company's latest deck.
- Self-serving infographics pulled from data sources, with the approximate credibility of online movie critics.
- The same piece you saw last week, re-skinned by a freelance hack for a competitor.
Is this the best we can do?
It's not the premise of native advertising that's flawed. All too often, it's the execution. Marketers pay lip service to relevancy and value, but deliver content that's little more than repurposed PR copy -- and customers can tell the difference. To stand out from the crowd, build credibility and earn customer goodwill, marketers need to approach native advertising with real rigor and discipline. At the risk of sounding like another listicle, there are four things marketers have to do to improve their branded content:
1. Start from the customer's point of view -- not your own -- and address questions that customers urgently need answered about their business, market or customers.
2. Go for depth, not breadth. It's better to provide narrowly focused, uniquely valuable content that appeals to a subset of your customers than to try to please everyone with the same generic topics they can find everywhere else.
3. Provide hard-to-find data that drives real insight. Make connections. Help customers understand their business in new ways.
4. Approach native advertising like an editor, not a marketer. Instead of building content around messaging, develop it from scratch. You're obviously not going to publish anything that undermines your business, but if you run everything through the PR machine, you're going to end up with the same low-value processed cheese everyone else puts out.
And since it takes two to tango (and because I come from a media background), here's how media outlets and publishers can help to make native advertising noble again:
1. Figure out what your native unit brand is and live it. For Buzzfeed, it's the listicle in its breezy style; for Gawker, it's the posts in its safe-snarky style.
2. Once you've identified this, you can help brands create content in the right voice that works for your user base.
Native advertising is a powerful medium that can deliver value to consumers and get media companies out of the CPM rat race when it's done right. It's going through an awkward and defiant stage right now. I'm confident that it will mature into something more dignified and respectful soon.