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Media consumption has never been higher than in today’s hyper-connected world, creating more opportunities than ever to reach prospective students yet also making it more challenging to cut through the clutter and actually connect with people. That’s why earning attention organically through inbound marketing initiatives like targeted blogging and optimized social media content have become the most effective way of reaching and converting students.

Inbound strategically integrates digital marketing techniques with the fundamentals of content marketing, so valuable and relevant content is consistently created and distributed to a clearly defined audience with the goal of providing a frictionless path to conversion. While the power of inbound marketing makes it a logical hub to any institution’s student recruitment efforts, most schools are always in search of new ways to expand their visibility and reach potential applicants. Even high quality, optimized content sometimes struggles to find an audience.

Native advertising essentially applies the audience-first inbound philosophy to the realm of paid media, making the ad experience follow the natural form and function of the platform in which it is placed. It involves creating content that looks as similar as possible to a third-party site’s natural content, offering helpful and interesting information that doesn’t disrupt the user experience. This makes native advertisements far more engaging and likely to be clicked on than banner ads or other paid alternatives – they’re also one strategic solution to the rise of ad blockers.

Example: Here’s a high quality example of native advertising on, subtly brought to you by the University of California. Notice how it subliminally associates the university with fighting climate change, tasty wine, revolution, scholarly expertise and hot and sunny California!

university native advertising example

The popularity of native advertising is growing exponentially – it’s expected to attract $21 billion in spending by 2018 in the US market alone. Native ads include sponsored articles and videos that closely mimic editorial content but have a promotional intent, in-feed social ads, and “recommended content” widgets appearing at the bottom of high-traffic media pages like CNN, The New York Times or BuzzFeed.

The reason for this booming market is fairly self-evident. As the following graph shows, click-through rates on traditional digital ads have sharply declined since the turn of the century to the point of nearly zero. While today’s savvy online scanners seek to ignore advertising, the beauty of native ads is that they don’t look like ads – they’re designed to integrate seamlessly with the host medium’s regular posts.

education marketing advertising click rates analytics

Research suggests that while people are exhibiting greater antipathy to intrusive advertising, they have a high tolerance for brand-sponsored content that contributes to their browsing experience. According to Sharethrough and IPG, 53% of users say they’re more likely to look at a native ad than a banner ad, and 32% said they would share a native ad.

Benefits of Native Advertising for Higher Education Marketing

Native advertising done right is a great way to build brand awareness and trust by leveraging the established viewership, credibility and SEO value of respected editorial websites, placing your school’s content in front of a larger audience alongside desirable articles with viral potential. For it to be effective, ensure there is a good fit between brand, content and publication. Look for reputable sites that already draw your targeted prospects and work with quality partners that will benefit your brand from the positive association.

Working with respected content providers will deliver more relevant referral traffic who are more engaged with your posts – nearly 20% of 18-25 year-olds report that native advertising positively affects their perception of a brand. It’s an opportunity to piggyback on another site’s high-ranking search results, with immediate SEO benefits that would be especially impossible for newer websites or pages to attain. Compelling and appropriately optimized content generally continues to be discoverable within a host site’s ecosystem through organic long-tail searches even after the campaign has ended, at no additional cost.

native advertising example

Producing valuable content that earns the approval of the host site’s readers can give your school validating social proof. Native ad platforms that have some level of social engagement, like LinkedIn or Facebook, display likes, comments and sharing stats that improve your credibility and viral impact. Display advertising can’t achieve these important social signals that expand organic reach and make users more likely to engage with the post.

Creating Authentic and Compelling Native Ads

The camouflaged nature of marketing material designed to blend in with editorial content has prompted some to call into question the ethics of native advertising. While native ads must be labelled as “sponsored”, the language and positioning of disclosure labels can make a significant difference in whether consumers can recognize them as advertising.

In a study published by University of Georgia’s Grady College a year ago, fewer than 1 in 5 users recognized native ads as ads. The way that native advertising blurs the lines between “advertorial” and editorial can make readers feel they’ve been tricked, which risks eroding confidence in both the advertiser and publisher. John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, delivered a hilarious but eye-opening rant on native advertising a few years back that raised some important issues about the necessity for transparent advertising and media objectivity.

The truth is that the ubiquity of free content has dried up publishers’ revenue streams, motivating their thirst for collaborative sponsors. According to research from Business Insider, native ads are projected to drive 74% of all ad revenue by 2021, making them easily the brightest light in the imminent future of advertising. While publishers have a responsibility to balance transparency with a fluid user experience, schools making native ads should also ensure that their content is providing the value expected by viewers so they don’t feel deceived.

native advertising marketing media example

This article in the Chicago Tribune is identified as sponsored content but it’s not transparent which school(s) have paid for this placement

This means creating content that closely matches the style and quality of the publisher’s regular content, shares your school’s expertise in an interesting way, and never “sells”. It’s been argued that this content creation should also aspire to the norms and standards of good journalism, addressing the interests and concerns of your target audience as your best education content marketing does, while clearly understanding what works best on the particular publishing platform. This includes factors like language, tone, length, structure and how supporting multimedia is integrated with text.

In a new study published by American Behavioral Scientist, researchers found that consumers are becoming more accepting of native advertisements, provided that there is useful information, a recognized brand logo and clear disclosure that it is a paid placement. “The main message here is that if you can create something that is interesting and use extremely compelling storytelling with interesting multimedia, you can hold people on the page,” said the study’s lead author, Kaye Sweetser, an associate professor at San Diego State University.

Integrating Inbound Marketing Techniques to Native Ad Campaigns

To maximize the effectiveness of your native ad campaigns, they should be viewed as a means to lead generation and eventual “conversion” by connecting them with inbound marketing strategies. Start by defining your school’s goals for the campaign, whether it’s building awareness for a new program, asserting expertise in one of your brand’s unique selling points, or seeking to overcome a common misconception about your training. Intricate understanding of your targeted student persona should inform your created content and where it’s placed, as well as the optimal timing for the placement.

Your story could be written by one of your content specialists, faculty experts, the publisher, or a collaboration between school and publisher to ensure the form and function balances both parties’ interests. While more journalistic platforms will require freshly created content, in other situations you may be able to repurpose previously published posts that have proven popular. If your articles include home-grown content like infographics or charts, be sure they appear on your own site first with their own URL to reap the SEO benefits.

native advertising digital media

Example of a list-style sponsored post on BuzzFeed

As with all your content, aim to be easily shareable with punchy headlines, absorbing visuals, and entertaining or educational storytelling. Depending on the publishing platform, this could mean easily digestible lists (e.g. “5 Ways to Accelerate Your Career with Online Training”) or extensively researched longer form articles that demonstrate your innovative expertise.

Since native ads exist within the context of an external media platform, they’re inevitably surrounded by distracting links, ads and other enticing content to pull the viewer away. Once your lead clicks on and engages with your native ad, make their next step as clear as possible by including a convincing call-to-action (CTA), in a logical position agreed upon with the publisher, that leads to an optimized landing page hosting an offer aligned with the subject of your story.

Make the most of your ad by including additional links to your webpages within the story and, if possible, elsewhere on the publisher’s site. Complementing your news story with traditional banner ads or PPC campaigns can increase the opportunity for conversion without diluting the content within the actual article. Use lead nurturing techniques, such as targeted emails with relevant additional content to advance prospects towards enrolment or other goals after they take action on your landing page. Of course, analytics tools should be employed to measure the effectiveness of your native ad campaigns, assessing how well they are delivering the leads you’re seeking and even how they influence attitudes towards your brand. To get a better idea of native ad effectiveness and ROI, newer measurement tools are emerging.

Example: A prominent independent day school in Melbourne in collaboration with Fairfax Media launched a series of in-depth native advertising articles on The Age website, exploring aspects of the student experience and the quality of its teachers. They used the Nielsen Digital Brand Effect dashboard to monitor in real-time the lift in positive attitudes toward the school.

analytics measurement native ad marketing

In-Stream Native Ads in Social Media Marketing

It’s debatable whether sponsored social media posts truly qualify as native ads but they do fit the definition of branded content designed to blend in with their surroundings. Social media ads have the advantage of using tools like geo-targeting, demographics and interests to better segment your audience.

cdi college social media marketing

This example from Quebec-based Collège CDI attaches to a dedicated landing page with one clear CTA. Although their form arguably includes too many fields, they nicely offer to auto-fill the contact info using your Facebook account that brought you there.

cdi social media marketing landing page

Facebook offers many options for native advertising, including Facebook Audience Network, providing a spectrum of tools, templates and guidelines to simplify the customization of seamless ads for mobile apps. Publishers can now share ads directly on their Facebook pages as long as the brand is tagged in the post. Brands then get access to reach and cost-per-click data if the publisher has made it a sponsored post, or can choose to sponsor it themselves using a tool called Handshake.

Other social media networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram also allow you to create in-stream native ads, offering more opportunities to build your social media audiences and improve SEO through links and social signals. Try expanding the reach of already popular posts through paid promotions. You could also use retargeting (AKA remarketing) to display native ads to prospects who have already visited your website. For best results in your social media marketing, real-time monitoring of trends and appropriate targeting is required.

Content Discovery Networks

A cost-effective way to be featured on high quality sites around the web is to appear in a “recommended reading” widget through a content discovery network that has relationships with thousands of publishers. The nonprofit group recently studied the top 50 news websites and found that 82% used native ads, predominantly sourced by Taboola and Outbrain.

These largest native ad vendors have unique strengths and differences but it’s acknowledged that Outbrain has the more discerning quality standards – likely making it the more appealing option for colleges and universities. To reach the right users through these networks, a mix of contextual signals and advanced targeting is used. Brands are often recommended to first do a run-of-network – letting the networks’ algorithms determine the users and publishers most likely to engage with the content.

The Future of Native Advertising

While it may still be in need of a universal set of guidelines and measurement tactics, native advertising is emerging as an important component of any organization’s education marketing mix. It demands more time and resources than traditional advertising techniques but when integrated with a robust inbound marketing strategy, it has the potential to drive impressive results at all stages of the conversion funnel.

Advances in big data could yield fascinating synergies between native advertising, content marketing and artificial intelligence in coming years. “The future is predictive journalism,” John Lemp, the CEO or Revcontent, recently asserted in an interview with Forbes. “We are working on AI technology that helps brands build personal relationships with users.”

Native advertising is one effective way that schools can expand their reach and develop these relationships with prospects today. Whichever way you spin it, it should definitely be on your school’s radar in 2017.

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Have you tried adding native advertising to your student recruitment strategy? Did the results meet expectations?