For a generation of internet consumers who have become anesthetized to the completely-ubiquitous world of banner and interstitial advertising, the story of how a clothing retail company called Brandy Melville has been using Instagram and other social media platforms as its only form of online marketing should be uplifting. We’ve been trained to think of advertising as merely a barrier to entry, a pop-up image where your near-instantaneous response is to look for the “close” icon so you can access the content you came to consume. This in-your-face approach to advertising was invented by a man named Ethan Zuckerman who, 20 years ago, dashed off a bit of code that would become the first pop-up ad. On a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, Zuckerman apologized for the invention, not just for the rage-inducing intrusion it caused for all of us, but how it desensitized us to the idea that we were just an amalgam of data to be sold to advertisers by units of 1,000.
Brandy Melville, though, will not be chasing your computer’s cookies from website to website. You won’t suddenly hear its auto-play video ads in one of your open browser tabs. As detailed by BusinessWeek’s Lisa Marsh, the clothing retailer has placed significant investment in creating engaging social media content, and for its efforts it has earned 2.2 million followers on Instagram, 65,000 followers on Twitter, and 218,000 Likes on Facebook. “Millennials want to tell stories and curate what they see,” WGSN’s Sarah Owen told Marsh. “This group is looking for something more editorial.”
These references to “editorial” and a brand’s desire to “tell stories” fit within the larger narrative of where marketing and advertising are heading in the second decade of the 21st Century: away from commoditized ad units and more toward native advertising. Which is to say that advertising will no longer be contained at the periphery of the website, but right in the content stream, and, when done well, it will be just as entertaining and engaging as the non-advertising content.
Last week, I wrote about the mini-scandal that hit the podcasting company Gimlet Media when an email miscommunication led to a 9-year-old being interviewed for a Squarespace ad when he thought the interview was for an episode of This American Life. As I argued at the time, this episode was cautionary but shouldn’t be blown out of proportion, and that Gimlet Media, with its storytelling approach to advertising, had created some of the most engaging and clever marketing I had ever come across.
The rise of native advertising shouldn’t just make you feel good about the future of the internet because it’ll be more entertaining; it will also fundamentally change the incentive structure for how news producers create and display content. The tyranny of the CPM banner ad, after all, has led to absolutely abhorrent web design norms that have made the internet a worse place. Everyone knows the frustration of landing on a top 10 list and finding a slide show they have to click through, each slide preceded by yet another load of the entire page. Or perhaps you follow a link on Facebook and find yourself on the third page of a six-page paginated article, and you have to scroll down in order to navigate back to the first page.
Banner advertising hasn’t just affected website design, but also the content we create to populate those websites. Because the media company is rewarded solely based on the number of pages loaded, it’s incentivized to generate clicks with little regard to longterm engagement or return readers. This is why we’ve experienced the hyper-aggregation that has led to hundreds of news sites embedding the latest John Oliver rant, each competing to generate the most hyperbolic headline imaginable in order to trigger whatever signal in the Facebook algorithm that propels you to the top of everyone’s newsfeeds. “Maybe my cynicism has taken over, but the internet’s race to try to suck up any spare pageviews on whatever slate of viral videos that happened to emerge that day is something I find utterly depressing,” I wrote earlier this week. “Especially when I think about the opportunity the web has given us and how much we’re squandering it.”
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Well perhaps the next decade will be one in which we squander that opportunity less often. Because native advertising, while not completely divorcing us from our proclivity for clickbait, at least incentivizes us to attract deeper readers. The success of a native advertising campaign won’t be predicated on how many people saw the ad, but how many read to the bottom and then were compelled to share it with their own social media followers. BuzzFeed, which has built its entire business on native advertising, doesn’t even charge its clients based on the number of views its sponsored posts have received. Which is ironic given that BuzzFeed has been painted as a pageview-sucking vortex that has been released to consume and regurgitate the entire internet.
The rise of native advertising will also be great for the economic state of the news industry and the journalists it employs. A consistent worry has been that the commoditization of advertising has depressed ad rates and led to the destruction of journalism. But native advertising, if it truly becomes dominant, will always require a human touch and penchant for storytelling, i.e. the work of creative people who have honed the research and writing craft and can utilize it to tease out interesting trends and anecdotes from brands. There’s an amazing opportunity for these brands to provide their own form of journalism (as we’ve seen with the Marriott-sponsored travel blog at Medium), and though yes, that journalism should always be viewed with a skeptical eye, there’s no reason it can’t be informationally valuable and advance human understanding of certain issues.
So while some, like Andrew Sullivan, see native advertising as a dangerous blurring of the lines between journalism and corporate-sponsored advertising, I see a trade-off that will give media companies the breathing room needed to create a truly valuable and user-centric experience on the web. Ethan Zuckerman, the inventor of the pop-up ad, realizes probably more than anyone how the web has been partially ruined because of the norms he put in place. Only when those norms are finally shattered and done away with can we truly forgive him.
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