Native. Whether you refer to it as "native ads," "native content," "branded content" or another variation, every brand, platform and creator has had more conversations around this topic over the last couple of years. The struggle we all face, but even more so on the advertising side, is the delicate balance between promoting our products and brand and maintaining the authentic native voice of the platform where the content will be experienced.
The emergence of new formats has demanded a re-evaluation of narrative structure, context and aesthetics. When in our history have two-to-five-minute pieces of content or six-second bursts of video been a valid format? As audiences migrate from traditional programming to Web content, both storytelling and narrative structures must evolve, too, and it is crucial that advertisers understand this evolution if they want to connect with millennial—and future—audiences. In fact, there's been a shift in the publishing/advertising ecosystem. Brands and agencies are increasingly relying on publishers to provide guidance on what content their specific audiences will engage with and respond to.
From a joke to a screenplay, each is traditionally designed to hold the audience's attention through rising action, increased stakes, tension and other factors until something is revealed, a problem is solved or justice is served. In many ways, digital content structure follows suit. However, what makes a piece of content attractive now, and what continually holds an audience's attention, differs from traditional devices.
Digital content creators are continually amazed by agencies and brands that insist that traditional advertising justifies itself as content. Many are using old rules that no longer apply to audiences outside traditional TV. They need to delve into what attracts an audience to particular content and creators, and what specific devices, beats or structural elements captivate them. In many ways, we have had to push ourselves collectively to redefine the structural arc of content to make sure it fits both the medium and the way people consume video today. Above all, it's important for us to understand the greater contextual or meta-narrative that's at play in digital content.
The meta-narrative is the biggest change in the way video content is perceived. There is now a brand affinity that positions the portals as creators, not just simply providers. It goes beyond community—there must be a notion of proximity to the content source that allows for this connection. Individual identity is defined by source at an unprecedented level. BET, CMT and MTV are all historic examples of how this was initially attempted. They are large containers that serve specific demographics but in many ways are too large and distant to allow for any authentic psychological connection to the source. What we see more than ever now are audiences identifying with sources in a truly authentic way that helps them define and share their own identity.
While they may now be too distant to authentically connect to audiences, cable networks such as these introduced the crucial idea of specialization. Parsing demographics was a way of differentiating networks and attracting specific audiences with targeted content. This is the natural process of attracting an audience and is only really possible through alternative platforms such as cable and the Web. The smaller the barrier to entry, the more specialized providers can become. Specialization is the key opportunity for audience acquisition.
Context Is Everything
Voice is paramount in the success of specialization—it is ultimately what the audience desires and leads to the provider's success. The unique voice dictates the content itself, and the contract between the content creator and the audience has its own specific rules. In a sense, a meta-narrative understood by an audience is far more powerful than traditional network narratives of the past; it is personal, and holds specific responsibilities and storylines that go far beyond a specific piece of content or video. Individual pieces of content are chapters that either support or deter from the provider's voice.
Simply put, the audience identifies with these brands in ways that weren't previously possible. I never would have identified personally with NBC or CNN, but I do identify with Uproxx, Vice and Huffington Post as they relate to my own sense of self.
So what does this mean for advertisers? It means they have to trust digital content brands to speak to their audiences in their own voices. It means that sponsorship of digital programming can be just as powerful as, if not more powerful than, traditional modes of advertising. It means that audiences are savvy enough to understand that less invasive advertising methods that support the Web brands that audiences identify with are more powerful than methods that adopt outside voices or try to ubiquitously impose a piece of content across divergent audiences. In fact, consumers are becoming less bothered by whether it is sponsored or editorial content as long as it's positioned correctly and they are getting the information and the content they are most interested in. The maintenance of authenticity is crucial to the success of a specific campaign as well as the long-term success of the provider.
About Benjamin Blank
Benjamin Blank serves as chief creative officer at Woven Digital. In this role, Mr. Blank oversees video and creative strategy and heads Woven Studios, the company's creative and production arm. Woven Studios currently creates original programming as well as video content for brands such as HBO and Miller/Coors.
Prior to Woven, he co-founded production company Locksmith Content, where he directed award-winning TV commercials, Web films, branded content and films for clients including American Express and Nike. Mr. Blank was also a producer at Anonymous Content, where he worked on numerous brand commercials and short films. He began his career at Propaganda Films.
About Woven Digital
Woven Digital is a millennial-focused digital media company, producing and distributing relevant pop culture content to nearly 5 million people daily. As home to some of the most influential digital brands for young adults, Woven reaches 90 million people monthly, providing them with shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment and video. UPROXX is one of the largest millennial-focused news and entertainment online sites, while BroBible is the largest male-focused college lifestyle destination. Founded in 2010 by Scott Grimes and Michael Laur, Woven is headquartered in Los Angeles with offices and production facilities in New York and Chicago.