Zeno’s Marketing Paradox: Native Advertising as a Ramp To Customer Experience

Earlier this month, my friend Stephanie Losee helped bring Dell’s editorial content in to the New York Times as its first native advertising campaign. While native ads are clearly advertising, their goal is to fit in and add to the reasons that bring readers to a publication. In essence, to be more like media, and less like an ad.

But this dissolution of advertising and its direct claim on attention is like Zeno’s paradox, which says you can forever reduce the size of a thing by half without the thing ever entirely vanishing. Though we may spend less time directly focused on explicit ads, this just shifts that promotional intent to the broader customer experience.

Columbia Sportswear doesn’t advertise to increase demand to be outdoors, but its GPS PAL helps convene a community of outdoor advocates giving realtime dispatches. The CVS Pharmacy App talks with me about what I need at their store, and it makes helpful suggestions to help save money. It elegantly increases my demand, but in such a targeted relevant way its not an ad. And if Amazon’s predictive shipping comes to pass, they’ll send me items they discern I need before I go to the store or click a buy button online. In this future world, ads and services become harder to tell apart.

Buy Media, or Be the Media? From Red Bull & Mesothelioma to EdX
There’s likely no better example of an audience where content is plentiful than the few thousand people with mesothelioma – cancer that usually comes from exposure to asbestos. Their lawsuits are incredibly lucrative, so lawyers market like crazy to serve them. Because so much advertising gets tuned out, one smart law firm started a contest to make issue advocacy ads to ban asbestos, sponsored running races, and even petitioned congress. Results: people liked what they did, they earned search rankings that put them ahead of mere lawyers. Even with law firms, companies that are loved win.

Other than lawyers, few industries do a worse job with their advertising than higher education. But many universities are getting huge “try rates” as open course platforms such as EdX create relationships between universities and millions of interested students.  This at once makes MOOCS in to marketing, educational experiment, and a public service consistent with their mission.

This isn’t different from brands that create their own news centers, rather than courting the press. Red Bull does this by staging events that gain millions of views. Even Delta Airlines scored by making a pre-flight safety announcement that is so funny, millions of people watch it even when they’re not belted in.

All this hastens the retreat of declaratory ads, in to experiences which fit in to their audiences’ lives. Why interrupt customer’s lives with messages, if instead you can be a more persistent part of their lives?

Zeno’s paradox says we may have less concentrated ads. But in their diluted form they can reach wider and live closer to us all. And though surrounded by brand experiences, we’ll hear ever fewer words from our sponsor.

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