Native Advertising


Digital advertising is changing fast. Formats that served as the backbone of the first generation of online marketing are losing impact and more engaging strategies for gaining attention are emerging.

There are still ways to draw attention to digital display ads (animations, contrast, placement, etc.), but the fight against banner blindness is ultimately an uphill one. Add the increasing prevalence of ad blocking software and you have a recipe for stagnation unless you’re moving rapidly to diversify your ad spend.

One of the most promising developments has been in native advertising. Unlike traditional ads, native material matches the form and function of the platform on which it runs.

More and more brands are realizing that native is the way of the future: Business Insider estimates that by 2021 nearly three-quarters of all display advertising revenue in the U.S. will be from native ads.

Sometimes It’s Better to Blend In

Rather than running traditional ads to promote its Colombian crime drama “Narcos,” Netflix partnered with the “Wall Street Journal” on an interactive portal named Cocainenomics. The minisite had all the hallmarks of a WSJ investigative journalism series, including timelines, maps, and in-depth articles — but all with an overarching brand goal in mind.

So much in marketing is about standing out from the crowd, popping off the page, and demanding people take notice. However, in a media environment where people are savvy to most of our tricks, sometimes the smart play is more subtle. Ads raise our defenses. Native ads are simply better at not sounding the alarm, allowing the message to get through while the viewer is still in an open and receptive state of mind.

Because a lot of native advertising involves content, the related field of content marketing is sometimes confused as wholly native in character. While the two share some overlap, not all media created for marketing purposes is placed so as to fit seamlessly into the forum on which it’s being shared. Some content marketing, to the contrary, is still about attracting attention by doing something unusual on a platform.

Paid Inclusion

Not all content marketing is native, but furthermore, not all native advertising involves content: paid inclusion in search engines, a major component of any Search Engine Marketing (SEM) strategy, is also a form of native advertising. When a brand buys prioritized placement on search engine results from Google they are paying for their URL to look and act just like the organic results, save for the small text indicating it’s a sponsored link.

Websites that don’t even trade in content, like ecommerce platforms, also sell prioritized listing in native formats. The most well known example is Amazon Sponsored Products, which are keyword-targeted ads that appear on results pages on their site.

It’s important to note that the goal of native advertisements isn’t to hoodwink audiences. It’s to introduce marketing messaging in a more harmonious fashion. A full disclosure should be included in all native ads, making perfectly clear what is being promoted and by whom. When the content or listing is relevant and high quality, audiences have proven more than willing to give it their attention, even with full knowledge that it’s an advertisement.

“In a media environment where people are savvy to most of our tricks, sometimes the smart play is more subtle.”

For example, General Electric earned millions of listens for its podcast miniseries “The Message,” which examined sound technologies (including several of the storied brand’s own products). Fans were hooked on the interesting premise and smart execution, and were not at all turned off by the fact that the entire program was essentially a native ad.

Staying in the Social Feed

In addition to content and paid search, social media marketing is also experiencing an influx of new experiments with native formats. Organic reach on Facebook has been on the decline. Rather than watch their posts go unread, brands are adapting to the new reality that some of their messaging has to be promoted to get in front of eyeballs. They are shifting ad spend to options like Sponsored Posts, which fit neatly in user feeds.

Not only are these spots less likely to be ignored than banner ads, Sharethrough/IPG Media found that 32-percent of consumers indicated they would actually share a native ad with friends and family. Unless it’s this year’s most talked about Super Bowl ad or a recent viral trend, traditional paid ads never get shared anywhere near that often.

All the big social networks have similar ad products:

The all-digital nature of these platforms has the added benefit of feeding into focused targeting schemes. Instead of just blasting messaging to mass audiences, advanced behavioral targeting is automating the process of deciding what type of content a user might also enjoy based on past activity.

“By 2021 nearly three-quarters of all display advertising revenue in the U.S. will be from native ads.”

For instance, a user that spends a lot of time on car-related websites and social media channels is a good candidate to receive an update from Land Rover promoting its Dragon Challenge, a polished and captivating native video ad showing the brand’s attempt to be the first to climb the incredibly steep 999 steps up the Tianmen mountain with an SUV. The content showcases Land Rover’s core brand attributes: audaciousness, refinement, and superior capability — and all in a format that doesn’t feel like an ad.

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For content to go viral in 2018 and beyond it can take a little extra push. Online magazine Bustle has been active and assertive in promoting its articles with sponsored posts on Facebook:

Casper Sleep, the first and most well known of the internet-based, mail-order mattress companies, built a swipe-friendly, story ad for Instagram. It was a smart choice of format as their audience is already almost entirely online:

Fast food chain Wendy’s opted for a story-format ad on rival app Snapchat. Their brand has taken a brash and playful tone online lately, so going with an app that reaches a youthful demographic makes sense for them:

Google, which is rarely described as brash, chose to run a sponsored post on LinkedIn promoting its domain name services to that social network’s business-oriented audience:

British Airways used a promoted tweet to spread word of its #HomeAdvantage campaign, which was rolled out to encourage U.K. residents to stay local for the 2012 Olympics. Readers that used the code in their call to action were taken to an interactive minisite that showed a Boeing 777 being piloted through the streets of London:


Interruptive, non permission-based advertising is far less effective on digital platforms than traditional ones. Unskippable ads are slowly becoming more common but users still attempt to block ads whenever possible and chafe at TV-like advertising models on their digital devices. Worse, they are mentally tuning out the ads they can’t skip.

Some marketers try to get around these drawbacks by doubling down and making their ads even more intrusive and harder to ignore. Every brand is different. For some, being loud and slightly mischievous is not out of character. For most though, those types of outreach activities should be used sparingly.

More top brands today are built by building and maintaining trust with their customers. They do that by promoting their positive values consistently and transparently. Running ads that can be perceived as invasive or deceptive is a surefire way to undercut that mission. Audiences have their guards up for those dated methods. Native ads, properly disclosed, are a viable means of staying top-of-mind and getting messaging through the filter.