If you’re paying attention to current big data trends and utilizing the latest and greatest marketing technology, it’s easy to get caught up in the innovation and lose the real focus. And by that, I mean delivering impactful content that actually means something to your customers.

With all the data we have now, it’s a common mistake to treat online customers as stats on a page, especially when you’re conducting native advertising campaigns.

For those of you who need a cheat sheet, native advertising pairs sponsored ads with high-impact editorial content. This allows digital marketers to get the best of both worlds, leveraging consumers’ interest with unbiased complimentary content, while controlling the brand message and visual takeaway. According to Facebook’s R&D team, by 2020 nearly 63 percent of all online ads will capitalize on a native advertising strategy. Native advertising is so powerful in fact, that it’s fast emerging as a leading best practice in digital marketing.

The downside is, there are a bunch of ways that native advertising can go seriously wrong or blow your budget. So, if you’re going to do it, you need to do it well.

Here are four common mistakes to avoid at all costs and how to fix them:

  1. You’re Using Stock Images

Ever stared at a Shutterstock image of a sparkly-toothed teenager biting on an apple and thought, “wow, I really feel like getting my daily dose of vitamins!” No? That’s probably because you can’t relate to a stock image of a dimply teen with a photoshopped smile and airbrushed cheeks. See the apple freshly-picked from a golden orchard basking in sunlight and you might be more tempted to buy.

Stock images of products often fail to match the mood or tone of the editorial content. For real results, successful native advertisers should use customized images that support and enhance the surrounding content.

Vladimir Bashkin, Business Development Director of Native Ad Network Adnow, comments: “When deploying native advertising strategies, image is everything. Readers are far more likely to click on an image that tells a story rather than one that simply showcases a product”.

Think for a moment about a high energy article listing the top things to do in Hawaii. Now consider the difference in impact between a stock photo of a bottle of sunscreen and an evenly tanned young woman applying that sunscreen on Waikiki beach. Which one are you more likely to click?

Creating the right image is key. And it’s simpler than you think.

If you’re creating campaigns on a budget, smartphones with free filtering and editing software make native ad customization as easy as adding a your latest photo to Instagram. If you’re looking for more sophisticated image manipulation, instead of hiring an agency, Photoshop or Luminar will let you create exotic locales at a fraction of the cost.

Using enhanced or original photos can increase consumer trust and engagement tenfold. According to David Gasparyan, President of the call platform Phonexa, “Consumers are more likely to click through native ads, and even pick up the phone, when they see images that feature everyday people using products and services in realistic situations.”

You don’t need to pay a runway model to sit on Waikiki beach when the girl next door can be realistically Photoshopped into an image (although a trip to Hawaii might be more fun if you can persuade your boss to work that into your budget!)

For personal brands and service based businesses, digital marketing expert Carissa Hillrecommends using slightly enhanced, yet ‘real’ images that connect with your target audience. These can work “a lot more successfully than using stock photos. For example, a hair salon promoting their hair services will have a lot better success showing off a great photo of their own work in their own salon, as opposed to a stock photo they purchased online.”

  1. Your Ads Don’t Relate to the Content

Ads that don’t relate to the editorial content fail to engage the reader and can even reduce trust. Trust is a vital metric in native advertising, without it, people won’t click through, even if the product is relevant to their needs. To get the best results, the connection between your product and content must be obvious and seamless. Native advertising at its best doesn’t come across as advertising at all. Remember that most consumers can smell a marketing tactic from 100 yards away.

“Ideally your ads should be promoting the result you know your clients want, rather than the product or service itself. People don’t buy the product, they buy what it will do for them, and the experience it provides them with” Hill says. “By using a great photo (or even a short video) of an attractive model applying sunscreen on a beautiful beach in Hawaii, your ad is going to get a lot of likes, tags and shares (engagement) on social media because it’s relatable. A bottle of sunscreen would not get the same result, because people don’t necessarily want the sunscreen, but they do want to be on the beach in Hawaii.”

A native advertisement for sunscreen works in this case, because it’s directly tied to the editorial content about things to do in Hawaii. But think of the same ad in a top tier business publication next to an article about how your company provides bleeding edge customer service. The ad will look about as awkward as a cow on roller skates.

  1. Your Ads Don’t Engage

Going beyond the digital billboard, native advertising is majorly effective at increasing brand awareness. When executed at its best, it allows you to deliver your message in a non-intrusive manner, as if it weren’t advertising at all.

The best way of leveraging this strategy is by creating ads that entertain, engage and encourage click through. While dreaming of the perfect Hawaiian vacation, make sure consumers can picture themselves in your image, lying on a beach soaking up sun, listening to the soft lapping of waves. Don’t show them a bottle of your product.

“When ads are engaging, the consumers have the ability to see themselves experiencing results from the advertised product or service” says Carolin Soldo, online marketing expert and founder of From Passion To Profits. “This allows the audience to engage with the ad mentally and emotionally connect to it. For example, showcasing a product’s or service’s features is usually not as effective as showcasing how the consumer feels, looks, or acts once they have bought it” says Soldo.

  1. Your Ads Break the Law

Because native ads are designed to naturally blend in, without appropriate disclosure it can be easy for a reader to mistakenly assume the ad is editorial content. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require publishers and advertisers to clearly inform users when a post is sponsored content. Failure to do so can result in a slap on the wrist and even hefty fines, as seen in the Acai Berry and Lord & Taylor lawsuits. Savvy digital marketers steer clear of this pitfall by making sure all native advertising is clearly labeled as sponsored content. The last thing you need is a lawsuit on your hands when trying to drive traffic to your site.

Native advertising is a powerful tool to have in your kit, as long as you are using it to truly connect with your customers authentically. Avoiding these four common pitfalls will help you create an effective campaign and leverage the latest advertising strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Formerly a Vice President of Content Marketing, Molly is the Co-Founder of The Unicorn in the Room, as well as a Marketing & Business Columnist for INC and The Huffington Post.

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