The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Native Advertising

The term native advertising made its first appearance in November 2010, but the concept has been around for a lot longer. In its simplest, and most controversial form, native advertising is nothing more than the digital equivalent of advertorials. But when viewed more broadly, native advertising is more than just advertorials covered in a new lick of paint with a shiny new name trying to hide the old.

Sharethrough, a company that specializes in innovative implementation and distribution of native advertising, offers the following as an “official” definition:

Native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.

Which makes it sound exactly like an advertorial. However, thanks to the diversity of publishers, platforms and channels found across the Internet, native advertising can be delivered in a variety of ways. From the somewhat discrete in-feed ads found on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks, to promoted search results and the more intrusive sponsored content. Native advertising is all around us, we just don’t notice a lot of it.

Which is what makes it so appealing, and so controversial.

In order to reduce, or at the very least control, the blurring of lines between content and advertising, the Federal Trade Commission held a workshop on the subject late in 2013. Many countries, the US included, already have guidelines in place for online advertising, sponsorships and endorsements, and the workshop served more as a fact-finding and discussion forum. The Interactive Advertising Bureau and The American Society of Magazine Editors also updated their guidelines in 2013 to  standardize advertisements that mimic the context in which they are displayed.

Let’s begin our exploration of native advertising by looking at its benefits.

Native advertising - quote

The Good

When done well, native advertising benefits publishers, advertisers and the audience. Almost all online publishers and social platforms rely on advertising to generate revenue, but the ever decreasing click through rate on traditional display advertising has led to advertisements becoming more intrusive, ultimately affecting the user experience.

Native advertising - user experience

Image Source: Search Engine Land

Native advertising, however, allows for advertisements to be unobtrusive, so while publishers can still display as many advertisements as before, the user experience is more pleasant. For advertisers, there’s the chance for higher click through rates, increased brand awareness, and higher revenue. There are no industry-wide studies on native advertising to refer to, but Buzzfeed, who many see as the poster child for native advertising, report CTRs of 1-3 percent for their partners and sponsored content providers – the industry average is currently around 0.2 percent.

When done well, native advertising does not harm the user experience, it enhances it.

The Bad

The relative newness of native advertising presents obvious challenges in that there are no set standards or performance benchmarks to refer to. Guidelines have been updated, but these are no more than suggestions. Similarly, without performance benchmarks, there is no way to measure the success of any campaigns within your industry. If you run both display and native ad campaigns, you will be able to measure the results of the two against each other, but you won’t have an industry norm to compare it to.

Compounding this is the fact that native advertising requires much more creative work than traditional display ads. Native advertising performs best when it is ultra-specific, and precisely tailored for each publisher. In traditional advertising you could create a single display ad and use it in multiple locations according to the demographic you were targeting. With native advertising you need to create individual ads for each platform or publisher, even if the target demographic remains the same. A 30-year old male browsing BuzzFeed has a different expectation to content than a 30-year old male browsing

Finally, there is the ever present risk of audience backlash resulting from consumers feeling as if they have been tricked into clicking on your ad. Even when following suggested guidelines, and having native ads clearly labeled as sponsored or promoted, your audience could still react negatively, with social media amplifying their response. This risk should not deter you from using native advertising, but it should guide you in every campaign you prepare.

The Ugly

Unfortunately, native advertising does have disadvantages. Aside from detractors who see native advertising as nothing more than an attempt to deceive customers, native advertising can also be spectacularly bad when not planned and executed properly.

native advertising - negative attention - example

Early in 2013, The Atlantic published an advertisement, designed to look like an article, for the Church of Scientology. Despite being clearly labeled as “Sponsor Content”, it went on to generate so much negative attention that The Atlantic had to remove it, and issue an apology. In publishing the ad, The Atlantic made several mistakes, but the most glaring were:

  • There was no value to the audience. The copy was self-congratulatory, almost to the point of propaganda.
  • There was no match between the advertiser and the publisher. Publishers need to always ensure that their advertisers are a good fit for their audience, much like a vegan publication would never accept any advertisements for leather goods.

With native advertising you are expected to have detailed knowledge of your audience, along with the audience of the publisher or platform you intend advertising on. Your advertisement must not just add value in general, it must add value in context to where it is being displayed. As discussed earlier, native advertising should be tailored precisely for the platform or publishers audience.

How to Approach Native Advertising

If you have no experience with native advertising, it is obviously better to start in the shallow end, using the following:

Facebook used to offer Sponsored Stories, but they announced the discontinuation of this service in early 2014. Though they will still be offering targeted advertising, these will now only appear in the sidebar and not in the users newsfeed.

All of these forms of native advertising are relatively easy to implement and manage, since they mostly rely on a small amount of text, linking back to a specific page on your company website.

If you have a large enough marketing department, you can eventually look at sponsored stories and content on Forbes, Buzzfeed, Mashable, Gawker, Vice, Huffington Post, etc. This form of native advertising requires close collaboration between your marketing department and the publisher to ensure that the form, function and content of the stories match up to that of the site. It is also this form that carries the highest risk in terms of negative feedback, so it should be approached with a strategy in place for managing any negative response.


It is wrong to look at native advertising as yet another buzzword or gimmick. Admittedly it is generating enough coverage to warrant being labeled a buzzword, but all that it is is a new way of looking at marketing. Not all businesses will benefit from every form of native advertising, but don’t hold back from investigating all the options, accessing the benefits versus the risks, and finding the one that works for you.

And while it is possible that it might be replaced by some new form of advertising by the time 2015 rolls on, this is only indicative of how rapidly the audience and technology are changing.


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