One of the great many ironies of native advertising is that, as a more a subtle digital output than other forms of advertising, it’s awfully distracting.

With so much of the discourse on native focused on everything but its substance -- from what to call it as a digital trend to how to define it and label its individual unit -- it’s tempting to think that the reason it has yet to graduate to the silver bullet status we all suspect it might is simply a matter of nomenclature. In doing so, we are abdicating our responsibility as an industry to make the web better. We are actively avoiding both the real problem in native’s current iteration and the real opportunity that native affords.

First, the opportunity: We have arrived at the moment where brands have just started to effectively translate their storytelling prowess to digital media and find the means of getting those stories in front of willing audiences. Conversely, audiences have only been willing insofar as the stories coming from brands are authentic and valuable to their day-to-day existence. There’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that consumers don’t lose any sleep over who produces the content they enjoy. In fact, consumers have developed an expectation that the brands on their radars should produce content serially. A recent TNS study found that 60% of consumers expect owned content from brands, nearly half of them (46 %) follow their favorite brands’ blogs, while 40% of consumers are disappointed in brands that don’t produce or maintain a blog, citing everything from laziness to fading relevance as reasons a brand might not bother with content.

This development is larger than native advertising. Brands have found branding in digital that actually works, with social media and content marketing (the discipline of producing and distributing content across the web) the real revolutions on that front. However you care to define native advertising, it would be a disservice to storytelling at large to relegate it to an ad unit on a page that’s simply more seamless than the display clutter surrounding it.

Like any professional storyteller, brands need platforms to broadcast their stories to new audiences. Over the last couple of years, native advertising on media sites with huge audiences appeared as an incredibly attractive asset -- if for no other reason than, for seemingly the first time, digital media had found an ad unit for branding, for storytelling. The other added benefits -- its ability to increase visibility for the brand and leverage the adjacency the brand shares with the publisher, and the ability of publishers to charge a premium for the product (at a time when they’re being challenged on the viewability of their display ad placements) -- appeared to be subplots, albeit compelling subplots.

But somewhere along the way, the subplots overtook the main story. A lethal pathogen crept into native advertising, one that could prove to be fatal.

Native advertising is -- surprise! -- barely used to tell authentic stories at all. It’s being used as a host for the same old selling tactics from the print and early online era into the parts of a consumer’s digital journey they still enjoy, the parts that involve browsing content.

When, according to a recent Chartbeat study, audiences engage with native advertising 50% less than with what they deem to be “real” content, it is this viral strain that they’re reacting to. Audiences know advertorials when they seem them -- the same advertorials they automatically flip past in a print magazine. Editorial content’s authenticity, perceived or real, impacts engagement -- go figure. Our own research suggests that when publishers slip a banner ad in the content stream, it actually depreciates the user trust of the entire feed by as much as 10%. That’s not good for people producing native ads and it’s not good for brand marketers.

Pretty soon (and there’s already evidence of this happening), consumers won’t trust any content with a brand’s name appended to it, undoing the gains we’ve made with the growth of content marketing. Given its compromised state, it’s time for brand storytellers to consider: Do I really need native advertising to tell authentic stories to willing audiences? The very idea of “native” or, let’s face it, camouflaged advertising, misses the point entirely. The content that should be celebrated isn’t advertising at all.

The much-vaunted Netflix/New York Times Collaboration “Women Inmates” has much more in common with plain ‘ole investigative journalism (yes, high-minded, well-respected journalism) than advertising. Had “Women Inmates” been a feature-length documentary on the festival circuit, with Netflix onboard as a producer, would its credibility come into a question? Why shouldn’t the same principles of urgent, compelling storytelling translate to the hallowed pages of premium publisher sites? Or owned content domains, for that matter?

The brands that are seeing success in the native space aren’t relying on the old tropes that ruined digital advertorials. Instead, they’re investing in their content hubs and see those hubs as the way to tell their story. Companies like Goldman Sachs and IBM and American Express have been consistently producing new, original content unencumbered by efforts that contaminate the messaging with payola undertones.

Part of the issue is that traditional advertising companies have been at the heart of the newfangled world of native advertising, and all they’ve known from CMOs since time immemorial (well, like, the 1950s) are the same unhelpful directives that will ruin a native advertising campaign. In this respect, advertising agencies need to adopt the practices of their PR brethren: The message is more important than the branding, and over time, the message will become synonymous with the branding. We need to stop thinking of advertising as a tool that interrupts the audience and more one that enhances their lives. Storytelling is the new branding … except that it’s not new at all. It never went away. We just neglected it for a while in digital.

We are at the nascent stages of native advertising, and this crossroads is a make or break for the industry. Do it right, and native may yet be saved, so that it can in turn lift a struggling media industry. That won’t happen until we start putting the user first and treat the virus of “me-first” advertising.

Tom Foran is Chief Revenue Officer at Outbrain, the content discovery platform. He is responsible Tom Foranfor driving rapid growth and overseeing sales, business operations and client services globally. Tom previously held positions at Quigo, NBCi, Yahoo! and most recently Crisp Media as CRO.

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