Why everything has changed, and nothing has. And why that’s good news.

[Image courtesy of Khalid Albaih at Flickr Creative Commons]

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of the moon, or in a cave somewhere, you can’t have failed to notice a seismic shift in the world of marketing over the last few years. New terms have been coined, and they’re on everybody’s lips. Have you got into native advertising yet? If not, perhaps you should, since that’s the way everybody seems to be going. Put simply, it’s advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. So it’s not in a display box, around which everything else flows. Instead, it gets right into the flow of things, and blurs the line between fact and faction. We should be used to that by now. After all, every time we do a Google search, we see sponsored ads either across the top or down the side of our search results. It’s obvious that they’re ads, say Google. But is it? Many of the people I speak to say they had no idea it was an advert that led them to me. But at least those Adwords ads do actually have a (small, admittedly) tag that says Ads. Native advertising takes this to a whole new level, slipping incognito into mainstream copy. Next time you take a look at any newspaper site, cast your eye to the right-hand side, or below the article you’re reading. For that’s where you’ll see native advertising. Or brand journalism, which used to be known as advertorial, but sounds an awful lot more respectable under its new title.

Now you see it

So what is this seismic shift that’s taken place in the world of marketing? Why are ads no longer working? What changed? We did. That’s the simple answer. Cast you mind back 20 years (if you’re old enough – if you’re not, stay with me and you’ll learn something) and we were all sitting there like empty vessels, just waiting to be filled by advertising. Two-way communication was simply impossible, and joining the conversation was unheard of. And then it all changed. It was back in 1995 that I remember an email plopping in to my In Box – from Bill Gates. Oh my God, I thought. I’ve only been at Microsoft five minutes, and here’s an email from Him. And it was from Him, but it wasn’t just to me. It was to all the tens of thousands of other Microsofties, telling us that we needed to get with the programme. The Internet Tidal Wave was the title of the message. Either we rode the wave, or we drowned. So ride it we did. And when the wave broke on the shore, it changed everything. Not instantly, though, which made it even harder to notice the change. But change there was. Gone was the stuck-on-transmit approach to advertising and marketing. Now, it was conversations, collaboration and Web 2.0. And marketing that didn’t look like marketing. Advertising that didn’t look like advertising. And the word content would never be the same again. Not to mention storytelling.

Back to the future

The thing is, none of this should be a surprise to us. From time immemorial, we’ve been attracted to stories and fascinated by learning new things. By finding out facts and making discoveries. By identifying with the people in the stories we read, and by feeling involved. So it’s hardly unexpected that advertising and marketing should move in this direction. The crude, standing-on-a-soapbox, megaphone-in-hand approach no longer works when you’re selling to sophisticated consumers – or savvy businesses. They want to be part of the process, and get involved in the discussion. They want to learn something new, and feel as if you haven’t wasted their time. So whether it’s a thought piece lurking on the edge of a newspaper site, or a podcast discussing the latest trends, a blog post that pulls them in and entertains or an e-book they share with friends or colleagues, value, interest and quality are the cornerstones. In the digital age, everything changes but nothing does really. Whether it’s content marketing, brand journalism or native advertising, we’re talking about telling a story and getting back to basics. None of this should surprise us. What is surprising is that we took so long to get here. And now that we are here, as Bill said way back when, it’s time to get with the programme. So what’s your game plan?