Native advertising is all the rage in marketing circles these days. The approach blends paid messages into the look and feel of the hosting digital platform, which makes the advertising seem relevant and indigenous.

However, native advertising also is immersed in controversy. The Federal Trade Commission is exploring native advertising to make sure it is in no way misleading to consumers who might read it as true editorial. And the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has issued a native advertising handbook in an attempt to define native advertising.

After significant market pushback, publishers now define native content as an "advertorial" or a "special advertising supplement" in an effort to be fully transparent with their readership.

A new approach, however, is needed. Marketers and content creators want to encourage deeper engagement without being unscrupulous; consumers want to know when they are viewing a paid message, and they want the distinction to be clear.

Enter native engagement.

Preserving Your Audience's Trust

A good native strategy is designed and executed with absolute transparency in digital media.

Without transparency, native advertising can be perceived as intrusive, and the blowback hurts publishers and advertisers. Consumers lament the loss of content without branding. Also, they are disillusioned with content that appears to be editorial—and therefore "pure"—but really is sponsored, therefore "bought." The third-party endorsement that marketers associate with editorial coverage is absent, and if that fact isn't immediately obvious, advertisers and publishers stand to lose their credibility and their audience's trust.

The IAB has delineated six common types of native advertising so far. The six core types of native ads identified and defined are...

  1. In-feed units
  2. Paid search units
  3. Recommendation widgets
  4. Promoted listings
  5. In-ad with native element units
  6. Custom

Each unit type is devised with the intent to deliver "paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong."

(Metrics are still in development for most advertisers and publishers expressed in terms of clicks, impressions, page views, and shares, among other measures.)

What Makes Native Engagement Different?

Native engagement is a slightly different, friendlier, and more effective means of reaching audiences with branded content—a variation on the native advertising theme.

Native engagement provides an active experience rather than a passive reading of sponsored content or newsfeed advertisements, and it is completely transparent, requiring the consumer's deliberate action. It is driven by 100% opt-in participation, which meets consumers' demand for full disclosure from the first click. The branded content is wrapped in the platform's experience, such as a game or challenge the user has signed up to play. And native engagement solutions can live anywhere online; they need not be tied to an editorial product, as they are a content offering unto themselves.

Engagement is about establishing a two-way, mutual relationship between the brand and consumer. It is not a strictly sales-oriented promotion. Brand information is contained within an experience that is fun and engaging so consumers want to extend their time interacting, which generates loyalty and furthers opportunities to make a far more subtle pitch. Consumers today are ad-weary. They want to be rewarded for their attention.

Interactive engagement is especially important for reaching young consumers. High-impact groups like Millennials have grown up in an era of gameplay, so tapping into their gaming experience to attract and inform participants makes sense.

Engagement campaigns draw the target audience in, create an experience, and simultaneously educate them about the sponsoring brand and content.

Whereas native ad programs are measured by reach or impressions, native engagement programs can be built to measure time spent interacting with the brand, actions taken within its content area, steps completed, and downloads or click-throughs to sponsors' websites. They employ an interactive experience that is readily quantified.

Spurring Engagement Through Gamification

New engagement strategies, like gamification, change the model. They generate interest and exposure to the content interactively. Brands can create excitement and interest through a unique challenge campaign (similar to a contest) that emphasizes brand attributes, such as quizzing participants on brand category trends. Brands first engage their target audience then encourage them to share their experience with others via social channels, thereby increasing exposure, and unlike the recent steps taken by The New York Times, do not require the buzz-killing native ad disclaimer associated with native ads.

Organizations that adopt this approach are successful because of the gamified experience. Participants willingly invest time to interactively explore the brand. The content within the contest is topical, ensuring that participants learn about a brand. Finally, the challenge component is typically designed to go viral, growing the brand's audience by motivating participants to take one action (participating in the contest) that leads to another action (encouraging their friends to play) and extending the campaign's reach sequentially.

Scalable, Flexible, and Transparent

Native engagement can deliver several additional advantages when compared to a native advertising strategy. These core differentiators are further enhanced by adopting gamified content.

The following are advantages:

  • A successful native engagement strategy is always 100% transparent, accessed by willing participants through a deliberate opt-in mechanism.
  • Native engagement programs can be designed on a pay-for-performance platform, removing the upfront risk inherent in most social engagement buys.
  • Native engagement supported by a gamified strategy facilitates participation by engaging an audience familiar with the platform.
  • Native engagement effectively eliminates the need to choose between creating memorable engagement and achieving quantifiable ROI.

* * *

To succeed, a native engagement campaign must create a unique experience, draw key audiences into the content, go viral, and integrate fun. With those components in place, branded experiences are so well-integrated that many users perceive them as native content rather than direct advertising, effectively avoiding the pitfalls of paid content and embracing the benefits of transparency—the hallmark of native engagement.

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Why Native Engagement Is a More Effective Approach to Native Advertising

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John Federman is chairman and CEO of Dailybreak Media.

LinkedIn: John Federman

Twitter: @jhfederman