As I mentioned in my Scientific American column this month, "native" advertising is taking over. These ads sneak onto Web sites and apps, masquerading as content. Native advertising was born from the modern mobile milieu: touch screen phones and tablets. Traditional, space-gobbling display ads don't work well when the screen is tiny, so the ad industry has settled on a different approach: articles that closely resemble the "real" stories around them. That's how Facebook and Twitter make their billions, and how sites from Buzzfeed to The New York Times (and Yahoo) are creating many of the ads on their Web sites.
The trouble is, many Web sites have been making the labels on these ads smaller and less noticeable.
Maybe there's another way. Maybe advertisers can find ways to make their brands shine without trickery or angering potential customers.
Herewith: some modest suggestions for ways to do just that.
Sponsor an app: We spend $10 billion a year on apps for our phones and tablets. Why shouldn't a brand exploit that? Offer a popular $1 app free for two weeks—and put your name on the splash screen. "Birds Eye Presents: Farmville." Can't you see it?
Sponsor a song, movie or book: In the traditional media realms of TV and radio, advertising pays for our enjoyment of the material, right? Why shouldn't the same model work in the digital age?
Buy us a movie or a song or a show—and add your ad to the beginning. Or stamp your branding all around the download page.
You'd think that this model would be commonplace these days!
Curate some good stuff for us: Gatorade recently scored a hit with its Pandora advertising initiative: It offered a free Pandora playlist of workout music. What do people like even more than getting fit and getting stuff for free? Right: great music.
Use geomarketing: Your phone always knows where you are. So as we walk by Steve's Pizza, why doesn't a little ad pop up that says, "Come in right now for a free soda with your slice!"? This would be optional, of course.
Exploit the phone: The phone is brimming with sensors, including motion sensors. It knows when you're running or jumping or waving the phone in the air. In interactive phone ads by a company called Adtile, for example, you're encouraged to "move this way for a free coffee" or "shake your phone for a free shake!" A fitness-clothing company could offer a reward in exchange for your doing some walking. A travel company could provide a virtual reality preview of a new place or space, where your view changes realistically as you look "through" your phone—up, down, left, right and behind you.
All of these options would intrigue and engage people in ways that static banner ads don't—a win for everyone.