Is Native “Un-Native” to Outdoor Ads?

Or is Outdoor is the most authentic form of native?

Native — it’s never far from the headlines at the moment. We hear it continually referenced in the same breath as mobile, online and programmatic — it has the feel of something born out of the digital generation. If this is true, where does this leave Outdoor when it clearly lacks one of the often cited key elements of native; editorial context?

Despite the relatively recent coining of this phrase back in 2011 by the investor Fred Wilson — you can probably draw on various examples of where you’ve implemented “native content” but it’s likely to have gone by a different name — one of my own first pieces of native advertising was from emap (Bauer) where I’d knock out the odd piece of copy evangelizing about the new Tommy Girl perfume in Smash Hits, although we knew it as an advertorial

Advertorials, or “ads disguised as content” was how many people historically referred to this type of advertising. However, the tide has turned, it’s clear to all, now more than ever, that the advert should aim to add value to the viewers experience by seamlessly fitting advertising into the context of consumption.

Image Credit: © 2015 Brian Kane

So if native is all about seamlessly fitting in, which seems to be a consistent theme, does this mean you need the B52 bomber of good editorial to deliver your native advertising WMD (weapon of minimal distraction)? How can you slip in the odd relevant promoted word or tweet without the editorial context? If editorial is key, surely native is entirely un-native to Outdoor advertising.

If you do a quick search for the definition of native, then editorial regularly pops up within the summary. Many claim editorial is intrinsic to delivering native ads. Other definitions explain it as advertising that matches the host platforms “form and function” (style and purpose), which ensures it feels less like pushed ad content. None of these definitions work particularly well with Outdoor advertising as there is little editorial and no branded environments to seamlessly feed into.

But let’s ignore the definitions and terminology as it was coined in an era where everything was defined and led in the context of mobile and online. Instead, look at some of its principles of engagement; the real essence of native is that it is not disruptive but stimulating and relevant within the context of the consumer’s moment in time.

If we apply these two key principles of native to Outdoor advertising, an obvious example might include sponsored weather feeds. The idea of offering something that the viewer appreciated were also key in the Time Out content on Exterion’s underground XTP’s that I helped deliver back in 2009. The proliferation of digital screens and better use of data to bring content to life means DOOH is full of native examples that provide a valuable piece of content at the right time in the right place.

There are other ways in which Outdoor neatly embodies native. The area of interactivity such as experiential led content via touch screen, augmented reality or location specific vouchers and money off promotions all tick the box of enhancing (not negatively distracting) the consumers journey.

But it’s not just within the realm of digital outdoor that native OOH exists. Classic poster advertising also provides native ad content because after all, poster advertising is the content. Unlike the average advertorial or sponsored tweet, the ad does not compete with other “physical” attributes — instead it stands alone, providing an even greater opportunity to garner the undivided attention of the viewer.

In a similar vein, it is entirely non-disruptive. Outdoor is an opt-in channel as the viewer has the ability to ignore it if they choose to. Also, across most Outdoor media owners, you’ll often hear the words ‘welcomed’ or ‘valued messaging’ cited from various research projects as a key benefit of the channel. These USP’s of outdoor are ultimately also a key element of a great native ad.

The difference between an OOH native ad and online or press ad is that the consumer is under no illusion as to what they are being served (and often welcome it) and so by its nature, outdoor advertising avoids any potential for a viewer feeling hoodwinked or distracted by what could be interpreted as unwelcome content. This is further reinforced by the fact that native ads often have to be sign-posted to avoid this potential confusion. We’ve all seen “THIS IS A PROMOTION” in the top left corner of the page and for some, this is can be an invite to skip it, which means the ad has to work even harder to grab the viewers’ attention.

So outdoor ads are the content, competing only with themselves in being able to deliver the right message at the right time. Also, as the most established medium around, it has been an intrinsic part of our physical and advertising landscape for generations. If there was ever one channel that can claim to fit seamlessly into our lives, delivering content on our daily journeys, surely Outdoor is the most authentic and established form of native advertising there is.


Mike Hemmings is a marketing consultant and owner of DECODED MEDIA. He has been instrumental in launching screen networks including CBS Outdoor’s (now Exterion) Underground estate in 2006 and also Amscreen’s facial detection based measurement systems. He has also achieved recognition through his creative work winning the Marketing Society’s Award for Excellence. DECODED MEDIA is helping media owners and agencies navigate, implement and commercialise multi screens strategies and integration including programmatic solutions.

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