In today’s digital climate—where consumers have made it clear they don’t want intrusive advertising—marketers have to stand out by blending in.
With the rise of digital and especially the surge of mobile, marketers have been forced to rethink the way they advertise. No longer does it suffice to simply repurpose television ads for desktops and smartphones. In recent years, advertisers have faced the challenge of creating ads for a bevy of new formats, from native in-app ads to influencer posts in social feeds and even branded ephemeral "snaps" on Snapchat. Whether they've succeeded is up for debate.
What they have succeeded in is interrupting the user experience. Fed up with obtrusive ad experiences, consumers have turned to ad blockers in hordes, and the response from the ad community has been inconsistent at best. Still, agencies, brands and publishers have actively been looking for ways to not only mitigate the issue, but woo disenchanted consumers.
For Jinal Shah, the global digital strategy director at J. Walter Thompson (JWT), the answer to the conundrum facing digital marketers today lies at the intersection of native advertising and content marketing.
Shah started her career as a journalist before making her way into advertising. She first stepped into digital with the launch of the now-defunct Ideablob, an online network for entrepreneurs to share ideas. After that, she helped curate ads for TED’s "Ads Worth Spreading" initiative, while in her previous role at JWT New York, she worked with brands such as Nestle, Macy’s and T. Rowe Price. Shah’s work has been recognized with Webby, Clio and Cannes Lions awards, among others.
In her current role as JWT's global digital strategy director, Shah is tasked with helping the storied agency flex and grow its digital muscles, as well as help drive new business. But even Shah admits that they are still figuring out how to best deal with the ad blocking problem at JWT.
Shah believes that native ads—which combine the effects of simultaneously summoning attention and blending in—can help marketers move toward producing interesting, engaging and ultimately less intrusive advertising that enhances the user experience.
“Our point of view is that consumers are willing to engage with content, regardless of where it comes from, provided that it comes with tangible, intrinsic value,” Shah told Marketing Dive in an interview. “If it doesn’t come with value, consumers won’t engage with it.”
Everyone is in the content game
The lines separating content marketing from plain marketing are blurrier than ever. As Shah sees it, that's because “everyone is in the game of content, everyone is a publisher, and everyone has a perspective on content—brands, publishers and agencies.”
She explains that today's content marketing has evolved from the advertorial spreads you first saw in magazines, while digital has allowed everyone to become publishers. “We have to believe, as content creators, everything that a brand produces is content,” she said.
From traditional advertising to social media and even some forms of customer service, pretty much everything a brand does today can be seen as content. And every piece of content that a brand produces has to serve value to consumers for them to engage with the brand. “One thing we try to ensure is that if a brand is underwriting a piece of content, that it's really good content and there is a need for it in the world, and two, that it's very transparent,” Shah said.
As consumers have more information available to them through the internet, their “BS meters are getting more sensitive,” she explained. But for brands that get it right, content marketing can help them tell their stories to consumers in unique and native ways.
The next evolution of native ads
From partnering with publishers on branded content to running sponsored posts on social, Shah sees a number of ripe opportunities for brands looking to reach consumers.
The native ad format people most often think of is sponsored content on publisher websites. Realizing they have both the audience data and content expertise to craft native ads that work for brands and their sites, publishers such as The New York Times, Conde Nast and Bloomberg have all opened in-house branded content studios in the past few years.
But that's not the only native way to reach consumers. Shah says the conversation at JWT increasingly revolves around social platforms.
They're not alone in this line of thinking: According to BI Intelligence, social media channels' early adoption of native ad units has led to forecasts that the ad category will make up almost three-quarters of all ad revenue within the next five years.
She sees branded content across social platforms as a clear opportunity for brands to amplify their reach. “What's cool about social channels is that they [allow] brands to be experienced in many different ways, where their content can live,” Shah said.
Shah describes Instagram as “one of the most powerful brand-building platforms that exists right now.” She says JWT has seen success with the platform for visually powerful brands in fashion, beauty, electronics, CPG and travel.
Some of the agency’s clients that have actively taken to Instagram to showcase their campaigns include Macy’s and Nestle. On a Mother’s Day video post, Macy’s garnered over 14,000 views and 2,100 likes. Featuring a fashionable mom with two kids in tow, the post is a short-loop video, a format which brands have seen more success with than simple static images.
A Nestle’s video recipe for chocolate chip lemon muffins earned more than 5,000 views and nearly 600 likes. While Macy’s can boast a 625,000-strong following and Nestle has 47,000 fans, it shows that visually compelling, user friendly social posts can boost brands' content marketing strategies.
Context is key
When talking about native content, context is key.
Shah explained that context not only helps inform consumers about the purpose of the content, but also keeps brands in check in terms of making sure the content is relevant. Knowing what works best for whom and where has helped JWT make smarter content decisions, Shah said.
Another strategy that has piqued Shah's team's interest is influencer marketing. By definition, being social means sharing information and collaborating with others, she said, so it’s a natural progression for content marketing to carry out influencer strategies.
“For our clients, it's a good challenge in maintaining a balance between creating your own content and gaining momentum from fans creating content for them,” Shah said.
What matters for brands is having a strong identity and knowing what value you want consumers to get out of your content.
“It’s important to know the behaviors you want to elicit from consumers,” Shah said, adding that as marketers, brands and agencies get smarter about their content abilities, they have to get stronger about developing a point of view.
Content as an operational game
For JWT, content is an operational game: Whatever your brand strategy is, your content has to reflect that. The question quickly becomes how you can do that efficiently and effectively.
As an industry, Shah said that advertisers are realizing that content marketing, even online, isn't cheap. This cost is causing agencies and their clients to be more demanding in what they expect out of the content they produce. Beyond the cost, per the digital strategist, content marketing on social media is not owned media.
"It is borrowed space—brands have to conform or create within the form and function of the social platforms," Shah said. "In our opinion, the only platforms/media that a brand owns are ones they have built and have the flexibility to evolve and change as they desire."
For brands to stand out using native strategies, Shah said it requires having a variety of content ready to deploy using a variety of tactics. “It’s not enough to have sponsored ads in print magazines or influencer posts in social media,” Shah said.
It’s crucial to find a balance between what benefits the brand and what benefits consumers, a tough balance to strike and an investment that’s “easy to bungle,” Shah said. “It’s an orchestration of your funds with your goals in mind."
By following the social zeitgeist, being smart about where they invest in native content and having a clear goal in mind, brand marketers can achieve the ultimate outcome in today's noisy digital world: standing out, while blending in.