“Serial” is a great example of how native advertising should work

Dec 11, 2015Original Thinking

It hardly needs to be said how much the podcast “Serial” was a cultural phenomenon, but most people forget the major catalyst for its rise in popularity.

The first episode premiered on its parent/sibling podcast, “This American Life,” which is almost permanently one of the most popular radio shows in the world. As the show’s first spin-off, it seems natural that Serial started with a huge built-in audience. It broke out because it was shot out of a cannon, and its excellence helped it keep building momentum.

A similar phenomenon happened with “Invisibilia,” which not only debuted on This American Life, but was cross-promoted everywhere by NPR. (Seriously, every other podcast from NPR had a promo about it.) The strategy worked again – it quickly became one of the fastest growing podcasts out there.

It’s a great example of what marketers should be aspiring to with native advertising, which is probably the most controversial and misunderstood forms of marketing. A lot of people think native advertising, and all its not-quite-accurate-but-often-used-interchangeably synonyms like sponsored content and branded content, is really just an effort to trick readers by producing veiled advertising that looks like objective information.

Sure, this was the aim of traditional advertorials – those cheesy things in newspapers made to look like newspaper articles, weirdly promoting fireplaces, that are so over the top that anyone with half a brain immediately knows they’re ridiculous. Sadly, the worst native advertising online isn’t much different.

But just because this is what some shortsighted marketers are doing doesn’t mean that’s what good marketers should be doing.

Instead, the best practice of native advertising is to use someone else’s platform to promote your own great content, so that they will add you to their sources of information and entertainment. That’s all This American Life was doing when it debuted Serial on its show – it played the episode, and then by people hearing it was great, they went and downloaded it themselves.

Similarly, if I’m a business with my own publishing platform, native advertising is a way for me to promote my work on other platforms with established audiences. If I think readers of a traditional magazine will like the articles I’m producing, I can post my articles there and hopefully that audience will come read more of what I’m writing.

Of course, this mainly refers to native advertising that is content produced by brands as a way to promote their own publishing platforms, whereas brand studios have a different set of concerns. The podcast StartUp has a great episode that walks through their own concerns about starting a brand studio.

The key part that most of the public, some marketers and plenty of journalists don’t always get is that it should be perfectly obvious who produced the content, so that they know where to get more of it. Instead of being some subconscious trick, like splicing frames of a product into a film, it should be very clear that this content was produced by Brand A and not Magazine B, so that you will go and read more stuff from Brand A.

That, of course, doesn’t fully address the concerns of publishers. There are still plenty of marketers who want to cut corners and make a direct sell, rather than rely on the quality of their content to build trust with their audience. It’s smart for publishers to remain vigilant and protect their brand, not to mention the higher ethics of journalism. Just because this is what good marketers should be doing doesn’t mean that’s what most will do.

But that makes it even more of an opportunity for smart marketers. If you do it the way it should be done, there’s no reason the brands of the world can’t create the next Serial, and use an already-popular platform to launch it to success.