Why content marketing beats native advertising

In Content Strategy by Rob Johnson5 Comments

I learnt the difference between native advertising and content marketing while sitting in a canary yellow Toyota delivery van outside a corner shop in St Ives, Sydney, Australia, one morning in 1983.

The terms ‘native advertising’ and ‘content marketing’ didn’t exist back then, but the fundamental insights, values and sales philosophies behind them did. And my dad was schooled in all of them. He taught me the one thing you need to know about sales, and it’s a bit of wisdom that has stuck with me since.

Back in those days, school holiday care was pricey and thin-on-the-ground, so when holidays came around we were generally bundled into the car and taken off to work with mum or dad. Dad’s job involved loading up the van with cash registers then driving around shops, door-to-door, trying to sell them. When he had sold all of the inventory, we headed back to the warehouse to pick up more, often stopping for a burger on the way as a late-lunch treat.

Dad was good at this job. When he walked into a shop and introduced himself, he’d always be told by the shopkeeper that no, they didn’t need a cash register. Then they’d chat for a bit. Not long after, dad would walk out to the van with a cheque in his pocket, and take a couple of cash registers back into the store.

Just lucky, you think? Well, dad was paid primarily on commission, and managed to put three kids through private schools on that wage. But I’d often sit in the front seat of the van and watch him as he chatted to the shopkeepers. He was never pushy. Never brought product into the store with him. He’d just go in and chat.

One morning I asked him how he sold so many cash registers by just chatting. He replied, “You’ve got to understand that everyone hates being sold things. But everyone loves buying things.”


Nobody likes being sold

No matter what labels we put on our marketing efforts, that basic truth informs all marketing. No-one likes to be sold something. And everyone loves buying stuff.

Some very limited statistics that reinforce that come from this year’s Reuters Digital News Report 2015, which found that 47 per cent of US consumers and nearly 40 per cent of UK consumers use ad-blocking software when online, so don’t see them at all. And the figures are even higher for 18–24 year-olds (56 per cent in the UK, and 55 per cent in the US).

About another third say they ignore ads, and around 30 per cent in each company say they actively avoid websites where the ads interfere with the content.

But that’s display ads, I hear you say. What’s the got to do with native advertising and content marketing? Well, native advertising is about selling things to people. Content marketing is about helping people buy things.

But there still seems to be confusion between the terms, and I can understand why. Native advertising is editorial content on media space you have purchased or rented from someone else. So in theory, you can use the editorial content you have created for content marketing purposes as native advertising—and sometimes people are doing that.

But if the native advertising is just a press release or a product plug—and is obviously so—readers turn off. This was shown by research published in March last year, from Tony Haile from Chartbeat.

He wrote on Time’s website about a study he conducted which analysed user behaviour across 2 billion web visits. He concluded that around two-thirds of readers will spend more than 15 seconds reading an article that isn’t (or doesn’t appear to be) native advertising.

However, if the article is identifiable as a native ad, that number falls to about one-third of readers.

He added that an analysis of page-scrolling behaviour mirrored this finding. If it’s ‘normal’ content—or not identifiable as a native ad—then 71 per cent of readers scroll down the page. If it’s native advertising, only 24 per cent of readers scroll down.

This echoes some of the data from the Reuters Digital News Report 2015, which found that between a 33 per cent and 43 per cent of readers feel disappointed or deceived if they find out content they have been reading is native advertising. Which isn’t the end of the world—the same report found some younger consumers actually felt more positive towards news brands that ran native advertising (19 per cent of 18–24 year olds and 15 per cent of 25–34 year olds in the US, and 13 per cent of 18–24 year olds and 11 per cent of 25–34 year olds in the UK).


But everyone loves to buy

The tempting takeaway message from this is for native advertising to work better, you’ve got to hide it more effectively. Unfortunately, hiding it is hard to do. Customers aren’t dumb. And even if you secretly think they are, you should never treat them that way. They can tell when you’re trying to sell them something.

That’s why I think the best definition comes from defining the intention of the piece of content. If it’s trying to sell you something, it’s native advertising. If it’s not, or if you can’t tell what it’s trying to sell you, it is content marketing.

If you take the ‘advertising’ element out of native advertising—to make it more like content marketing—I’m prepared to bet that it will be more effective than a sales spiel.

Furthermore, I’ll bet that that audience, once they’ve opted into this information relationship with you, will be far more receptive to ANY advertising, be it native or traditional display ads. Because as a group they are actively seeking out your content, which suggests they are interested in what you have to say, and trust what you have to say.

This was the message from the indepth analysis of the Reuters report, and I’m quoting a chunk of it because the message is so clear:

Broadly speaking, there are two types of sponsored content that we found to be of interest to respondents. The first is something practical and/or useful, but potentially more fun (such as the type of content found on Buzzfeed). The second is something that is more serious in nature, is informative, and where there is a clear link between the content and the brand.

And if there’s a better way to create and build that link than through your own content marketing, I’m yet to hear about it.


Ready to get going?

If you’ve got a plan to produce some content either for a native advertising campaign or for your own content, you’ll want to make it emotionally engaging. There are five simple tricks to do that, and I’ve written about them on this blog. And if you like what you read, sign up to our newsletter. It’s a monthly email with three original articles on either content marketing, content strategy or content production. Feel free to use them to make your content, and your content marketing, better and more effective than ever before!