The future of display advertising is native

Mel Exon, BBH Labs
Mel Exon, BBH Labs

A wise person recently told me that, statistically, a person is more likely to die in an aeroplane crash than click on a banner ad. As I'm writing this month's column on a long-haul flight to San Francisco, this is something I'm hoping not to be true.

It is the case that display ads are woefully ineffective - just witness the average CTR of a banner ad: 0.2% in 2012 (down from 9% in 2000). Indeed, the death of display advertising has been declared so many times, it's astonishing it still has a pulse.

Yet it's true that when anyone declares the death of anything, that thing often shape-shifts and resurfaces, alive and well, in a different form. In the case of display, witness the inexorable rise of native advertising.

I hate jargon, but native advertising is a term I increasingly like for a couple of reasons:

1. It evokes belonging and integrity; an opportunity for a brand to show an understanding of natural platform behaviours and a concern with user experience that isn't associated enough with traditional display advertising.

2. It is one way for publishers and media-owners to monetise their online platforms effectively, without sacrificing user experience. The user, the brand and the media-owner all stand to win. It's that combination which makes native advertising worth paying attention to.

What is native advertising?

It is relevant, paid-for content that appears within the editorial stream of a publisher's site or on a social network. Current examples include: promoted tweets on Twitter; promoted ads on search engines; sponsored stories on Facebook; Tumblr Spotlight; promoted videos on YouTube; and paid-for editorial content.

Native advertising is where publishing, PR and creative content meet.

What it isn't

"Understanding natural platform behaviours" does not mean producing wallpaper. The very best native advertising is thought-provoking, creative and disruptive - witness "How to look your best the morning after", BBH's work for domestic-abuse charity Refuge, featuring YouTube star and make-up artist Lauren Luke. It is not content that pretends to be genuine editorial.

Consider this

1. Native advertising is a (paid-for) means to an end, not an end in itself. Its role might be to recruit new users or kick-start an offer or initiative. As such, it's more a signpost on a connected path or story. Simple things such as a call to action or a useful link back to the brand are critical to progressing an interested user's journey.

2. Know what constitutes natural behaviour on a given platform and respect it. Etiquette and user experience, both crucial at the best of times, are disproportionately important here.

3. Siloed organisations won't fare well here. You need to demonstrate that you see the whole picture.

Who knows, perhaps display advertising isn't dead, it's just gone native.

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