Content marketing is generally accepted to mean the advertising strategy whereby brands rely on consumable and engaging content to operate as a conduit for their message. One subset of content marketing is native advertising, in which a brand’s proximity to a piece of content is meant to facilitate a transference of characteristics with the content, therefore leveraging the audience’s affinity for it.
While native advertising was first pioneered by television in its earliest days, it was not until the advent of digital media that the tactic came into its fullest evolution. Recently, however, it seems that while digital consumption of media changed the rules of content marketing, television has leveraged lessons learned and doubled down on content marketing and, specifically, native advertising.
NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour premiered in 1950, allowing the brand to be integrated with family-oriented content from top-notch comedians and performers. There was nothing very targeted about this tactic at the time—considering that the three major networks made up the entire list of targeting options—but it was groundbreaking in its ability to deliver a connection with the entire viewing audience without risking the possible drop-off in attention associated with the standard “disruption” model of commercials. While analog—and hardly creative—the goal was for the audience to transfer the positive feeling they had about the wholesome family programming to the Colgate brand. Generally speaking, it worked.
Fast-forward half a century and content marketing has come a long way since Colgate’s fire-hose approach to reaching consumers by means of content integration. Ironically, though, the broadcast industry is now taking lessons from digital media on the new rules of a tactic it once innovated.
With real-time decision-making, virtually unlimited content, and the ability to deliver ads that are contextually relevant on an impression-by-impression basis, brands are able use digital content marketing strategies to target audiences in ways that could not be done on television. Just think of the warm fuzzies attributed to the savvy dog food brand that runs a video commercial in the middle of a gallery of “The 10 Cutest Celebrity Pets,” so that the user must watch the video in-between pics Nos. 5 and 6. And how could an advertorial on the benefits of a specific supplement get a better intro to a potential user than by being “recommended” at the end of an article she was reading about a workout regime she had been researching? Or, who could resist simply clicking to watch a trailer of a movie starring a celebrity about whom they have just been reading, right there on the same page as the article? In each case, the advertiser has leveraged either a positive feeling about something to which the user feels personally connected, or else has taken advantage of a particular (though transient) mindset manifested by a targeted behavior.
Now, while it was true that the broadcast industry had nothing parallel to these micro-targeting opportunities in its early days, the fragmentation of channel options and digitalization of media planning, buying, and trafficking have all conspired to level the playing field and allow broadcasting to apply lessons in content and native advertising learned from digital media.
For example, in 2010, Unilever promoted six Unilever brands that were around back in the early days of advertising and ran those ads only during broadcasts of the series Mad Men. The ads adopted the show’s aesthetics and even nodded to plot lines, making them culturally and contextually relevant. And while the popularity of shows like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory may be reason enough to prompt networks like TBS to run nightly rerun marathons, it probably doesn’t hurt that these particular shows have a hugely dedicated and sought-after audience. It is probably no coincidence that one can hardly watch any commercial pod during a three-hour marathon of Modern Family without hearing the voice of one of the shows most endearing characters, Phil Dunphy, touting the benefits of Verizon FiOS service. The actor, Ty Burrell, actually uses the character’s trademark vocal inflection. And it’s also the reason that Kaley Cuoco’s new role as Priceline pitch-person is seen more often during these marathons of The Big Bang Theory than at any other time on television.
It’s easy to see how fans of these shows transfer their feelings for the characters to the brands these characters seem to be endorsing at the very moment the viewer is submerged in the show. That may be analog, but it’s as powerful a native strategy as anything digital can come with, and it is clearly informed by common digital strategies.
Advertising has always been about associating a brand’s message with content consumed by a desired audience. As audiences change how they engage content, however, advertisers must be prepared to adapt and engage in new ways. As the future evolves and so do our devices, so too will the interconnected nature of ads and content. So while content marketing may have been born in the days of the original Mad Men, in today’s world, where Mad Men the AMC series can be watched on a mobile phone, broadcasters are learning new content marketing rules from digital, and as the technology of television becomes more and more married to the digital world, I’m betting that the lessons have only just begun.
Mike Seiman is CEO of CPXi, a digital media holding company whose tech and services businesses aim to improve the effectiveness of digital platforms.