July 25, 2014 | Sarah Danks

Written with co-posters Kayla Hollatz & Paul Jahn.

The term “native advertising” is becoming more prominent marketing speak these days, similar to how “content marketing” has been gaining popularity in the last couple of years.

You’ve all seen promoted Tweets and suggested Facebook posts, at the least. But is native advertising just sponsored content on social media venues? Absolutely not. Evidently it gets so much more complex than that.

And, are the ads we see on social media really native, anyway? Well, it seems they ARE, since the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has given us the “core six” types of native advertising:

  1. In-feed Units — promoted Tweets, suggested posts in Facebook
  2. Paid Search Units — Google AdWords, Bing Ads
  3. Recommendation Widgets — paid content is delivered via widget
  4. Promoted Listings — Google Promoted Listings, Foursquare
  5. In-ad (IAB Standard) with Native Element Units — ads in standard IAB container placed outside of the “editorial well”
  6. Custom/”Can’t Be Contained” — these don’t fit into the aforementioned five types or are too platform-specific to label

But, wait, back up. What IS native advertising, anyway? Sigh. There are so many disputes — I mean, definitions — out there as to what it really is.

What’s Native Advertising? No, For Real…

…because while everyone’s talking about it, there seems to be a plethora of definitions out there. And not all of them jive together. Well, here’s some of the info we dug up.

According to this Mashable article, native advertising kind of came about in 2012, originally coined “native monetization” by investor Fred Wilson. It was later changed to the now-popular “native advertising” by Dan Greenberg of Sharethrough (or so They say).

Greenberg defines native advertising as,promoted tweet native ad

“A form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.”

That’s gotta mean something, coming from the guy who originally coined the phrase. But let’s look at what some other credible sources are saying…

Dan Shewan at Wordstream says:

“In order to be considered a true native advertisement, the content should align with the publication or site’s established editorial style and tone, and must also provide the kind of information that the publication’s audience typically expects.”

According to Copyblogger,

“Native advertising is paid content that matches a publication’s editorial standards while meeting the audience’s expectations.”

And Joe Pulizzi gives his 2 cents:

“To truly be a native ad, the user experience is not disrupted. The advertising is delivered in a way that does not impede the normal behavior of the user in that particular channel.”

So it sounds like native advertising is really a new take on an old form of marketing: the advertorial.

Native Ad, Advertorial…What’s the Difference?

But wait. So is a native ad really just an advertorial?guiness guide to oysters

Technically, yes.

You could say native advertising has been around quite awhile (longer than when Greenberg offered up his definition). It harkens back to the days of print (remember that?) — most notably newspapers and magazines. See, what we term native advertising today was just called “advertorials” back then.

With old-school advertorials, everyone knew they were looking at ads; while written in the editorial voice there was no disguising their true nature. In the Guinness Guide to Oysters, for example, the point of the advert is pretty clear: DRINK GUINNESS (oh, and here are some oysters that’re tasty. When consumed with GUINNESS).

From Brian Jackson’s article on itbusiness.ca:

“Native advertising is very similar in concept to an advertorial in a newspaper: it seamlessly integrates into the content the reader is expecting to find, but it was paid for by a company with the goal of advertising a product or service.”

It sounds as though current-day native advertising is supposed to do the same thing: blend into the site/publication/article on which it’s being promoted. So, it’s not in-your-face, annoying advertising (like some people consider banner ads to be). Yet it’s still very obviously an ad.

facebook suggested post related to recent activitySome native ads are pretty blatant — think of all the Suggested Posts you see in your Facebook feed — while others do a nice job at being non-intrusive. And then there are the native ads that’re so non-intrusive you don’t even realize they’re there.

– Is that one?
– Where?
– Over there, hiding in the bushes.
– Ah, yes, that’s an ad. I think.
– But…is it native?
– I’m not sure…but it looks poised for attack!

Whether you call it native advertising, sponsored content, promoted listings or advertorials…your ads should NOT be attacking consumers — à la guerrilla warfare — unaware.

Native Advertising vs. Guerrilla Ads

Okay, okay. So we’ve determined a native ad is supposed to blend in seamlessly with the content surrounding it. But…what if it’s done “too well”? What if we — the innocent, unsuspecting consumers — don’t even know it’s an ad? Huh. I wonder: is that the point?

Seems kind of counter-intuitive, though, to “trick” people into viewing your content.

How often have you been reading an article on a website publication, only to get halfway through and realize, “Hang on a minute…is this…am I being SOLD TO right now?” and backed out in disgust? Did you feel deceived? I know I did.

That can’t be very effective marketing, if it only “works” by attacking the potential customer from the bushes.

Stephen Nagel puts it well:

 “The truth is that native advertising faces the paradox of being defined as effective by its subtlety, but also judged when that subtlety is viewed as deceitful.”

Hmm. So where’s the line between subtle (done well) and deceitful (guerrilla warfare) in native advertising?

Funny you should ask, because, as it turns out —

The Google Doesn’t Like Guerrillas…

…as evidenced by Matt Cutts’ recent warning.

guerrilla native advertisingSo, native advertising needs to blend in. Be unobtrusive. Got it. But tread lightly within this type of marketing!  Evidently if your native ads blend in TOO well with the surrounding scenery, you could get penalized by Google.

According to Matt, the problem with native advertising/advertorials occurs when readers aren’t aware they’re consuming ads. He explains this happens when the writers didn’t disclose that the content was paid for (read: guerrilla ad hiding in the bushes). Matt advises all promoted content needs to include “clear and conspicuous disclosure” that the content is paid: “visitors shouldn’t have to dig around for something buried that discloses ‘advertisement.’

But in this Kissmetrics blog post, native ads are defined as:

“A form of advertising that is so tightly interwoven within the site it’s being promoted on that customers can’t tell that it’s advertising.”

Turns out the definition Kissmetrics gives isn’t the direction native ads should be taking at all…see, Matt states Google will “take action against people who take money to promote content and not adequately disclose that paid content.” So take care not to blend in too much with your native ads — or face the wrath of a Google penalty. He even said the Google News team will remove paid content — and even the publication — if paid content isn’t disclosed.

Yikes. Best to be very clear about disclosure when going native. But, how often would Google really run across native ads without disclosure? How many advertisers are even using this form of advertising?

Joe Pulizzi goes on to tell us that 66% of brands create content for native advertising and 62% of media companies offer it. What?! Then how does no one truly know what it is?

IAB states:

“Regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is a paid native advertising unit vs. what is publisher editorial content.”

promoted pin on pinterestWe don’t consider ourselves far off the mark of being “reasonable consumers” (plus we’re marketers on top of that), yet if we didn’t have this reputable source telling us these examples of native advertising were, in fact, paid content…we wouldn’t have really known. Yes, yes, there is a (very small) “Sponsored” notification, but some of those ads aren’t very forthcoming about being paid content.

This could be why so many consumers today (still) have NO clue what native advertising is…because they don’t realize they’re looking at ads at all (kind of like us)! Which begs the question — where’s the line between native advertising and guerrilla advertising? I.e., where does a simple attempt at delivering paid content become deceitful (and, therefore, risk incurring the wrath of Google)?

Also, Matt Cutts didn’t give examples of “proper” native ads and “improper” native ads…so who’s to know they’re doing it wrong — according to The Big Guy — until they get their wrist slapped?

Regardless of whether or not Google thinks you’re doing native ads incorrectly, what about the general public? The “reasonable consumer”?

Native Advertising…Are You Doing it Wrong?

This article on Entrepreneur.com states,

“Native advertising takes an advertising message and marries it to a platform that consumers are already engaged with. It is a smart way for sites to add content and for advertisers to spread their messages on a publishing platform. What it’s not meant to do is to trick readers into thinking promoted content is the same as editorial content.”

contently sponsored content deceit pie chart


What happens when consumers do feel tricked? Turns out the majority of them don’t like it. They don’t like it ONE bit.

There are obviously good and bad examples of all types of marketing; native advertising is no different.



It would behoove advertisers to learn from others’ mistakes in the world of native ads before venturing forth with their own endeavors.

When Native Ads FAIL

Let’s learn how NOT to do it by looking at some native advertising fails.

buzzfeed skittles native ad
















Everyone loves Buzzfeed articles. Well, except when they’re promoted by brands…and then they fail miserably at delivering any type of benefit to readers, as this pathetic attempt at wittiness by Skittles demonstrates.

buzzfeed native ad for skittles gone wrong














It would seem people who read the article were less than impressed with this native ad.

Okay, so that’s probably not a big mark against Skittles. Nothing at all like the backlash The Atlantic received after its now-infamous Scientology native ad at the beginning of this year (we stole a screenshot from the Huffington Post, since all evidence the ad ever existed has been erased from The Atlantic).

the atlantic scientology botched native ad

So, yeah, if you’re angering your target audience because they feel deceived by your content, and you have to issue an apology like this:

“We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way…we are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.”

…then you’re probably doing native advertising wrong.

And, while this next example (another off of Buzzfeed) probably isn’t breaking any rules or angering people, per se, I can say I was a bit put off by it.

mcdonald's promoted post on buzzfeed
















Okay…a somewhat blatant push but as I started scrolling down through the funny images & GIFs I forgot about it. Well, until I hit the end of the article, that is…

mcdonald's promoted post on buzzfeed 2


















Meh. Not impressed. I’m a (closet) fan of McDonald’s and I didn’t watch the video…wonder how many actually did?

And, here’s one of those “huh?” types of sponsored content, found on The Onion:

the onion poorly done sponsored content













Kind of one of those, “I have a delivery for Clark W Gris…man…” If you don’t know who it’s sponsored by, and neither do we…is it still paid content? We label that one a fail.

Now, let’s switch gears to successful native ads.

When Native Ads WORK.

Now, here’s a sponsored article on The Onion that is done correctly. Notice it’s very clear from the get-go it’s paid content (plus it’s a funny read).

the onion native ad














Well done.

And here’s a nice, promoted Buzzfeed article with a bit of a “push” that’s done very well (in this humble marketer’s opinion).

mike's hard lemonade buzzfeed native ad win


















What I like about this native ad is it’s very obviously sponsored content. I see that Mike’s Hard Lemonade is self-promoting with the #mikehacks hashtag…but I also really liked all the neat images, GIFs and tips. So it was a cool article to read.

The theme was neat, and the hashtag fit right in. If you do a search on Twitter you’ll see that hashtag getting a lot of use.

Native ad WIN.

And, finally, while I’m not sure how this native advert actually performed, I can say I really liked it a lot:

nyt orange is new black native ad














You can read the entire Netflix native ad, but suffice it to say, with their series “Orange is the New Black” gaining momentum, this article is relevant, informative and well-done. Again, according to me. Definitely a win, Netflix.

So…To Do or Not To Do? That IS the Question.

So, it seems we’re at an impasse. If native advertising’s too inconspicuous, you can potentially anger your readers (and Google, apparently). If it’s too in-your-face, it’s distasteful and can drive readers away. And, do people even WANT to see native ads?

Still wondering if native ads are in your marketing future? If you are, be sure and do your due diligence to figure out your target audience. It seems there are conflicting opinions out there as to whether or not people are receptive to this type of advertising.

In this report:

“It turns out that the majority of users across all age groups and demographics would rather see banner ads (than sponsored content). Also, the more educated a respondent was, the less they wanted to see a sponsored story.” 


Maybe it’s because native advertising is really still in its infancy that people don’t trust it yet. As time goes by we could see a shift towards preferring this type of marketing, as outlined in this infographic, wherein we learn 70% of individuals would rather learn about products through content rather than via traditional advertising.

Also, a Huffingtonpost article points out that people view native ads 53% more than banner ads. And, Sharethrough points out,

“97% of mobile media buyers report that native ads were very or somewhat effective at achieving branding goals. And native ads registered 18% higher lift in purchase intent than banner ads.”

That certainly sounds promising!

Turns out, engaging potential customers with native advertising could go one of two ways: only way to find out is to dive in. If you DO decide to delve into the somewhat murky waters of sponsored content, just do as Entrepreneur.com advises,

“The key to preserving the value of native ads is to earn and maintain audience trust.”

(Well, yeah, that and don’t p!ss off Google. Or reasonable consumers. Or reasonable guerrillas.)

What do YOU think about whether or not to use native advertising as a way to reach potential customers???


(PS: Thanks to the Cummings Institute for World Justice for the mountain gorilla pic!)




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