Native Advertising and TV: How Networks Can Write Data-Driven Storylines

Marketers are hot on the topic of native advertising right now, especially when it comes to TV. Business Insider predicts that by 2021, native advertising will make up 74% of all ad revenue. While marketers have been injecting their content into the streams of online publications across the web for years, the next step is to incorporate products successfully into, you’ve guessed it, the storylines of your favourite TV shows.

Here’s why: consumers have become ad-adverse. Thanks to the rise of subscription-based streaming services, ad blockers, etc. consumers can watch shows or browse the internet uninterrupted, commercial-free. And no shock here, regarding consumer TV habits, consumers have become less willing to watch commercials on cable television. As shared by the Wall Street Journal in a study by Arris, 60% of those surveyed said they downloaded or recorded TV shows so they could avoid commercials. Heck, I’m a marketer, and I regularly click the “fast forward” or “mute” during commercial breaks. But nevertheless, ads are an integral part of network revenue. According to the International Business Times, as the demand for native advertising grows, networks will not only be offering TV spots to advertisers at their annual TV upfronts, but storylines as well.

Let’s back up for a minute and examine the practice of native advertising. Native advertising in itself is a little controversial. In a study produced by Contently that interviewed 542 internet users, it was found that “two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that a brand sponsored an article or video.” (You can read more about this study here.) In essence, any content that is designed to fit into another platform’s format is native advertising. Whether you call it sponsored content, partner stories, promoted, paid, or insert another name of choice, unless done seamlessly, consumers don’t always take to it kindly.

But, marketers and advertisers believe native advertising has its place. As shared by Melanie Deziel, Branded Content Consultant, Speaker, & Expert In Residence at BRaVe Ventures,

“Native Ads are really important because they allow storytelling in a way that banner ads don’t allow for. There’s not enough space and not enough attention there to really make an authentic connection with a consumer. Part of the reason why advertisers are so attracted to it is that it gives them the chance to have a longer interaction. It allows advertisers to bring more value to the consumer.”

So how are marketers going to bring value to consumers on television without upsetting them? Native advertising on television shows will be much more complicated than social and editorial. Here’s why: unlike TV product placement (a precursor to native advertising) where a brand or product is mentioned briefly, native advertising will be much more intertwined into the actual storyline of the show. One native advertising storyline that was executed excellently on television comes to mind:

Netflix’s Original Series Stranger Things and Eggo Waffles


Why It Worked

After watching Stranger Things, even as a marketer, it is incredibly hard to distinguish that this is an ad. But hey, as a consumer I’m not mad about it. Here’s a quick synopsis of the show and Eggo’s role. Warning: SPOILER ALERT!

Set in 1980s Indiana, the story centers on the disappearance of a boy and the quest for his friends, family, police, and a psychokinetic girl to find him. The show, which has been praised for its homage to the 80’s (who doesn’t love the 80’s?!), has a complex storyline which has cleverly included Eggo waffles into the plot. The psychokinetic girl, named Eleven, only eats Eggo waffles and vanishes forever or so the viewer thinks. In the last scene of season one, the town Police Chief leaves an Eggo waffle out in the woods - perhaps to feed her? We’ll have to tune into Season Two to see (which was recently confirmed by Netflix to premiere in 2017!)

Image Credit: Netflix

Whether the character, Eleven, returns or not, Stranger Things moved beyond mere product placement and wrote the product into their storyline in an authentic, non-intrusive manner. This is native advertising at its best. Eggo, a favourite household item in the 80’s, was a natural fit in the storyline and viewers bought in. The appearance of Eggos didn’t feel forced. It drove action and viewers flocked online, not to share their dismay of seeing an ad while watching a show, but instead to share their love (and subsequent cravings) of Eggo’s!




How Can Brands Authentically Inject Themselves into a Show

So how can other brands mimic this success in the living room, especially as the push for native ads from networks increases?

Here’s the thing: consumers don’t mind seeing ads when they are appropriate, authentic, and timely. The key to successfully including native advertising in a TV plot is a mixture of judgment and data to validate those judgments. The products or brands included in a storyline must:

A. Resonate with the target audience.

B. Fit into the setting (this is where judgement comes into play).

To determine what products are already resonating with an audience, I decided to run an interest-based segmentation analysis on the Stranger Things’ audience using Affinio. The audience broke out into 12 interest-based clusters as can be seen in the below audience visualization.

To supplement the analysis, I included target accounts to see what other popular 80’s products (that are still around today) could be written into the Season 2 script, that would resonate with the viewing audience. I targeted the brands Doritos, JELL-O, Nike, Reebok, and M&M'S.

Looking at the data, I can immediately see which brands resonate best with each audience interest-based cluster. If Stranger Things was looking to target native ads towards the “Comic Book Fans” viewers, somehow writing M&M'S into the storyline would be a viable option. What about the “Horror Fans” viewers? Data shows that JELL-O is a favourite. Or perhaps we will see characters donning Nike footwear in Season Two in an effort to engage the “Sports Fans” viewers?

As I said, the judgment of networks, writers, and producers will also play a role here. Writing products into a script will be challenging if there isn’t a natural fit. Unfortunately more and more TV writers and producers will begin running into this problem as native advertising on television ramps up, and shows have an obligation to include products in a script. As shared by a TV writer for critically acclaimed dramas, in an article written by Oriana Schwindt for the International Business Times,

“If it (the product) pulls the viewer out of the scene or the show, then it’s damaging the storytelling.”


The Takeaway?

TV networks, producers, and writers will need to leverage data to validate whether a native advertising plot is likely to resonate with the intended audience or not. To authentically inject native ads into television, a data-driven approach to storyline development and brand selection must be used. Consumers are smart, and if a brand is written into a storyline solely as a network money grab, it simply won’t fly. Learn from Stranger Things. Use data to tell the story.

… Who else is craving Eggo’s after reading this?!

Let me know if you’ve seen any great executions of native advertising on TV (that you know of) in the comments below!