aristotle on native advertising

Aristotle on native advertising

In Content distribution by Rob JohnsonLeave a Comment

Two is the loneliest number. Some Friday mornings, I look at the number 2 standing on the wrong side of a decimal point. And I know someone else will look at it and say, “There you go, proof that native advertising doesn’t work. A 0.2 per cent click through rate (CTR).” They will fold their arms in that I-told-you-so-way. But they had doomed their own native advertising to failure from the start.

Sad, as the President would tweet. Someone has busted their arse coming up with copy for that campaign. They’ve thought deeply about how it will push people straight into a sale. They smiled as it was rewritten to be more ‘on brand’. They nodded as it was mangled by Compliance. They were silent as a three-paragraph disclaimer and a bolded 24 pt call-to-action took up half the page’s real estate.

Then the campaign went out into the wild. The results came back. The CTR was tiny. So small, the only clicks you got may have been accidental.

I see this in client accounts, which I check every Friday morning. Click through rates of around 0.2 per cent to around 5 per cent. And I hear people saying, “I told you this content stuff doesn’t work!”

When they do, I show them the campaigns with open rates around the 40 to 50 per cent mark and CTR’s nudging 20 per cent. And I ask, “Can you see what’s different here to the campaign you ran?”

The three ages of native advertising

I have often argued that the solution to this problem is to fix your content. But sometimes that’s too hard. Sometimes, your brand guidelines mitigate against good content. Sometimes you can’t control it. So this post will look at the different sorts of distribution of native advertising. And how that can affect the content you create.

There are three ages of native advertising distribution. They are like Aristotle’s three ages of man (bear with me on this). In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he wrote of the different characteristics of the three ages of man. Youth is all about having a long future and a short past. Old age is about caution, care and stability (and sometimes crankiness). The prime of life, the middle condition, can go either way. Aristotle argued it displayed the best characteristics of both age and youth.

The youth of native advertising

The youth of native advertising is ‘boosted’ Facebook posts and content discovery platforms like Outbrain and Taboola. They are attractive because of the promise of what they can bring in the future. Huge audiences! Targeted demographics! Being mistaken for legitimate editorial!
They all promise a future where your content gets cut-through. Unless, of course, it’s the wrong kind of content. In which case, it won’t get cut-through.

Part of the problem is also the company it keeps. Like badly behaved youths, we don’t know what other content will be around our stuff. Like youth, we’re only focused on ourselves. We’re just trying to interrupt people with our message. But the success of that content may well be impacted by the company it keeps. And that’s something you can’t know or control.

Also, you’re not really targeting an audience. You’re only targeting a way of getting to an audience you think is there. You’re long on promise and short on results.

And the results you get will be about the same as digital display advertising.

The prime of native advertising

To have a little more control over the environment you’re in, you move to the Prime of Native Advertising. That is a situation where you place your content thoughtfully. You have more space to craft a message.

You are also less focused on yourself. You are targeting an audience, rather than a distribution channel.

Many companies are in this prime age. Publishers make it easy for you to be there. They sell sponsored content space that, if used with interesting and useful content, can draw people towards your site. Where you can start a relationship with them.

The Guardian Australia website does this well for brands. They have a sponsored content section on their homepage which attracts brands like Optus, Colonial First State, and Royal Caribbean Cruises. The content is useful, engaging and created to build leads by giving away something useful. I don’t know what the CTR is for those advertisers on that site, but I’m willing to bet it’s good.

Others do it badly. They offer collateral (not content) that talks about product benefits, or discounts. Publishers give them as much space as they are willing to buy in order to scream these benefits at you. They’re like that kidult guy, behaving like a child in the body of a grown man.

When you hit maturity

Old age, in Aristotle’s world, is when you are more informed by the past than the promise of the future. Or when you hit 49 (yes, he did put that number on it).

In native advertising, old age is when you make your judgements on what works. You create your content accordingly. You have goals, of course, and expectations, but know how much control you have over achieving them. Your content is careful in its aims. You are more patient in achieving those aims.

If you are a long-term content marketer, this may sound familiar. That’s because it is. Mature native advertising is often indistinguishable from content marketing.

But let’s stick with native, rather than going into depth about owning your own audience and all those arguments you’ve heard before. If I did that, it would just sound cranky. And Aristotle warned us about the crankiness of this stage.

The difference between a mature piece of native advertising and a prime-of-life piece is like the difference between being a columnist and buying sponsored content. Mature native advertising is as interesting to the reader as the content around it.


When you hear the phrase native advertising, you think of advertising. And therein lies the problem. For your native advertising to be really effective, you have to move it up into the third age. The age where you are building an audience loyal to you, rather than interrupting someone else’s audience. That’s when it will really start to work for you.

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