Native success is not about advertising — it’s all about content. Just ask President Obama

The debate over native advertising reached peak volume this weekend at SXSW 2015 — Plenty more on blurred lines, if new content formats are news/not news, proliferation of in-house media studios, and plenty more.

As shared last week I see the single biggest — and most under-recognized — challenge is the need to think native. Not in the sense of advertising. More on how to accelerate engagement through new media sources fast becoming mainstream, with efficiency of native ads as a piece of the bigger pie.

President Obama might divide opinion as much as native discussions do, but when it comes his strategy, it’s clear the White House is looking to crack a new, broader code.

As outgoing head of communications Dan Pfeiffer explained in an interview with Stephen Levy, “we tried a spaghetti strategy — throw a lot of things against the wall and see what sticks, and to be very willing to take on risk that under traditional political rules you wouldn’t.”

By now, we’ve all seen President Obama’s selfie stick videos and GIFs for BuzzFeed. Within a day of posting, the videos had received more than 23m views on Facebook alone.

Why go to such lengths to engage in this way?

Tune-in power — even for the President of the United States — is diminishing fast. According to Pfeiffer, “You can no longer just have a nationally televised address and speak to 150 million people. So you have to work 15, 20, 30 times harder than previous presidents to have the same impact.”

He also testifies to a material change that’s upending marketing-as-usual: the overwhelming preference for images over words. Visual influence, as we call it, sees image-based content converging with increased proliferation and range of influential sources at a scale never before seen.

The evidence shows, whether you look through the lens of venture funding or user behavior, that a vastly different media environment is coming into focus, one that will require a new type of visual communication to earn attention.

Pfeifer suggests that visual influence demands an expanded range of capabilities. “We have a lot of people around here who write written words — speeches, talking points, press releases — and you will need people who are creating visual, graphical and video images to communicate the same message.”

He also suggests engineering engagement around all this content is a key part of the job. “You will not be reaching the quantity of people that you would reach by having a big broadcast television interview but the quality of the outreach will be better because you’ll be getting very engaged people who can take action on behalf of the thing you care about.”

It appears to be working. President Obama’s appearance on Funny or Die with Zach Galifianakis led to a huge spike in healthcare application completions, and the Buzzfeed video led to a big increase in referrals to Healthcare.gov. As Buzzfeed’s social caption on the footage stated: “How did we get Obama to use a selfie stick? Oh, because he wants you to go to Healthcare.gov.” (Disclosure: Healthcare.gov is a client of my firm Weber Shandwick.)

For all the extra effort it entails, native content plus broad engagement can pay off. So agree or disagree with President Obama, there’s much to glean from his recent moves into native content and engagement around it.

When it comes to adopting native thinking, selfie sticks are optional.

Experimentation, beyond injecting new ads into editorial channels, isn’t.

This article was originally published in The Drum leading into SXSW 2015.

Chief Innovation Officer, Weber Shandwick

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