What is Native Advertising and How Can it Go Very Wrong?


There’s a new buzzword for what is an old practice. “Native Advertising” is being bandied about as if it were the next release from Apple and businesses are jumping on it. Unfortunately, the practice that used to be called “advertorials” is a touchy bit of outreach that done incorrectly, can hit your brand hard like a congressional sex scandal.

As an example of what Native Advertising is thought to be, read this explanation from an article in TechCrunch and see if you know anything further once you are done:

Native advertising is a concept that gained traction in the digital ad industry in 2012. It refers to digital ad formats that integrate more seamlessly (yet transparently) into website aesthetics, user experiences and/or editorial in ways that offer more value to both advertisers and readers. Put simply, native ads follow the format, style and voice of whatever platform they appear on.

Over recent months, the conversation about native advertising has focused largely on the pros and cons of just one facet of the larger movement: publisher-produced sponsored posts on editorial sites. However, native advertising is an umbrella concept that encompasses much more, starting with Google Search Ads and now extending to Promoted Videos on YouTube, Sponsored Stories on Facebook, Promoted Tweets on Twitter, promoted videos on sites like Devour and Viddy, promoted content on apps like Pulse and Flipboard, branded playlists on Spotify, promoted posts on Tumblr, sponsored check-ins on Foursquare, and brand-video content integrations produced by sites like Men’s Journal and Vice.

What ties these seemingly disparate ad products together is one common theme: The ad’s visual design and user experience are native to the site itself, and these native ad placements are filled with quality brand content of the same atomic unit (videos, posts, images) as is natural to that site.

Native ad executions are not new. For decades brands have been integrated in unique ways into media, such as product placements in TV sponsorships or in “Special Advertising Sections” in print magazines. But it’s only recently that digital advertisers and publishers have started to conceive analogous executions on the web.

Sounds like the companies that are supplying Native Advertising (NA) are the only ones who have any idea what it is and are promoting their own services via the confusing practice. But, as it is the hot buzzword, unaware customers will line up for the chance to shove good money after bad content.

Some Examples

Let’s start with the most visible NA in the digital world — Facebook. Yes, when Facebook went public, everyone foresaw that need for the social avenue to start making money through the one commodity it owned — users. That has popped up as the suggested pages that appear on one’s timeline as if it were coming from a friend connected more out of pity than real friendship. You know — an elementary school friend you never really knew but figured it was easier to hit the accept friend request button than face a few messages asking why you won’t connect with someone you once shared a container of chocolate milk and caught mono or the chicken pox.

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The insertions are, if comments from my friends are any indication, annoying and people are screaming about leaving Facebook. Whether they will (several friends have) or they won’t (people complain and then go back about their business), it does register as something completely intrusive and insulting. Facebook may not be taking a huge brand hit from this but if another social media channel were to come along and not contain this sort of advertorials, Facebook might easily slip into the Myspace hole.

A friend of mine sent me a link to an article on Mashable and she asked me to comment. The article, entitled, “How to Start Freelancing With No Experience,” was such a blatant piece of Native Advertising, I did start to leave a comment. Then I erased it and wrote another. Then I erased that and started yet another. I ended up not leaving a comment as I thought I didn’t even want to tie my name or thoughts to such an outlandish piece of tripe.

IN a thinly veiled attempt to explain what hundreds of articles and volumes of books try to teach to those who wish or are forced to enter, the short article explains how easy it is to become a sole-proprietorship. The insulting part? To label it as easy, no experience necessary, refer to the 12% growth as if it were a choice, rather than forced on workers through job losses, and promote crowdsourcing sites (a hot button of hatred among professional freelancers) it ends up with links to the Mashable job listings and, of course, the author’s own site, aimed at “helping” people become freelancers. I won’t even list a link to that to express my utter disgust.


In fact, attempting to use Google search to find good examples of NA didn’t bring up any real examples to spotlight here. The buzzword is THAT new!

The TechCrunch article makes the following claim about the benefits of Native Advertising:

Brand advertisers are expecting to benefit from native advertising in at least two ways:

Higher perception and ad effectiveness via placements to which the reader isn’t blind.Native placements are not simply right rail boxes, but integrated with the native user experience of the site, whether a stream, feed, pin layout, check-in flow or video list. For example, Facebook and Twitter both integrate native ad placements directly into users’ content feeds with Sponsored Stories, rather than just relying on 300 x 250 banner ad placements sitting on the right column of their sites.

Increased brand perception because the brand isn’t detracting from user experience by merely consuming webpage real estate. In fact, when done well, the ad execution can actually enhance the user experience. For example, sponsored posts on BuzzFeed regularly generate sharing numbers that are equivalent to their editorial content.

The result of the above will be higher brand engagement (whether measurable by clicks, engagements, sharing or brand-awareness studies) and brand perception, and, therefore, higher ad effectiveness.

The benefits to publishers are, naturally, the inverse of the above:

A user experience that isn’t compromised by the advertiser but, in good ad executions, enhanced by it.

The willingness of the advertiser to pay a higher CPM due to the increased effectiveness of the ad.

The article also mentions the big downfall of this practice and it’s the killer for any brand or effort to use the content effectively:

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Unfortunately, the biggest benefit of native digital ads is also their biggest drawback. That is, to the extent that the best native ads are customized for a given web publication and its audience, they become more difficult to produce and sell at scale.

Original, Fresh Content is Key!

My personal experience comes from the knowledge gained by years of print advertorials in magazines. Inserting several pages into a magazine which is spotlighting a special event or season of the year was how advertisers successfully disguised ads for their products as a general interest story and it worked. It worked because it was original content and it benefited the reader. Native Advertising has to accomplish the same and creating original, pointed content is more expensive and harder to place than a simple banner ad.

Now that my work is published by global blogs, mostly in the same demographic of tech and business, I often get a request from my clients to write an article about their company and/or blog for my other clients. I have explained the down side of this so many times, I have taken to cutting and pasting a generic explanation of why it won’t work as my answer.

For example, a former client, a company that generated QR codes and had a low ranking in search engines, thought that if I wrote an article about them and placed it with all of my clients, they would increase their SEO. Part of my explanation was on how they, as a company, needed to show something of interest and information to the reader and how it had to be original content for each and every blog on which it would appear.

I had previously hooked up two clients whose products dovetailed each other and they agreed to an “article exchange.” I would write about one company for the other’s blog and vice versa. Seemed simple and I could spotlight why each product worked well with the other.


Both articles did very well but further requests to do the same with other blogs brought my generic answer; what’s next? What further things can you do with your product that readers want to learn? This seems to be the misunderstanding with the content of NA. Not only does the same, repeated content kill your SEO, but it also diminishes your brand, reach and reputation with your demographics, who often read several of the blogs that serve their industry. If you were to place the same NA content in the top cooking magazines, avid cooking lovers would see the same article and skip past it in all but the first source in which they saw the NA. That means you are paying for space that is just a waste of your financial resources.

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Using NA on one site, say financial content on only the Wall Street Journal, would be considered a “closed” platform. Offering the same content across the web is referred to as “open” content.

Good Examples

As a good example of NA, the TechCrunch article itself is an advertorial for The Native Adscape from sharethrough.com, who, of course, “power Native Advertising.” Good job! Similar examples grab your interest and BAM!, at the end you realize you’re reading an ad. If it’s well done, you are at least grateful for the information you have read up to that point.


For a job well done, here’s a link to an interesting article written by (or maybe for) Chris Schreiber, the VP of marketing at Sharethrough.com, entitled, “5 Ways to Get Creative With Native Ads.”

This food styling article is fascinating, funny and informative. It speaks to photographers, business owners, creatives and cooks. It’s not until the last sentence that you find it is a clever piece of effective NA.

This “how to” article on infographics uses the popular “ten best” format that drives a lot of traffic and has great SEO potential. At the end, naturally, there’s a mention that the material for the reader to create a successful infographic can be purchased at that site.

Check out: 6 Media Brands Doing Native Advertising Well

There are, of course, much too many examples of bad NA. Walmart took a big hit last year from one of their NA attempts on Facebook.

An article on eMarketer, “All Eyes on Native Advertising, Despite Uncertainties,” airs the basic fears of this new push for digital editorial tool:

Although business prospects for native advertising are positive, the medium has its detractors. Some media executives and marketers are wary of the blurring of lines between content and advertising that occurs with native ads, particularly in the context of news sites. Others question the return on investment of these ads, arguing that native ads cannot scale for multiple placements.

And there is still the question of defining native advertising. Most perceive native ads as purchased ads that mimic content in the venues in which they appear. They are more entertaining and less interruptive than traditional ads, and hopefully popular enough to get shares.

Many savvy advertising specialist agree on several points and they all come down to content. In every way, it has to align with the goals of the media consumer. Sometimes NA is a no-brainer. Tumblr CEO, David Karp once said, “you’ve already seen the Tumblr Native Advertising; it’s a Tumblr post.”

Featured image ©GL Stock Images


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10 thoughts on “What is Native Advertising and How Can it Go Very Wrong?

  1. That’s the problem, most don’t research some of these ad tactics much and throw money at anything they see that seem profitable. Yet it detracts more from what they’re trying to do.