Native advertising has become a dominant force in digital advertising over the past 18 months. As with all high-impact trends and technologies, numerous myths have circulated, making it challenging to separate the signal and noise. This article digs into the truth about this emerging (and evolving) opportunity and presents some insights about some of the common myths that follow.
Native is brand new
The discussion around native advertising and the nomenclature itself are relatively new, but the concept is not. Arguably, magazines have been employing native advertising for years through sponsored articles. Google's AdWords, paid placements in TV shows, and radio hosts plugging products are, to varying degrees, time-honored examples of native advertising.
Online advertising is constantly in flux. Banner ads have yet to deliver the branding potential that many hoped they would. Native advertising in the digital world is very difficult without a technology layer. There is a renewed vigor in the space with a litany of venture capitalists investing in promising companies and numerous technology players providing solutions that enable scalable, easy-to-use native ad products. This has led to an unusually high level of innovation, resulting in better, more scalable solutions. For many advertisers and publishers, now might indeed mark the first time when native advertising is an approachable solution at scale.
Native advertising always outperforms display
Defining success for advertising is subject to the KPIs of the brand. Advertisers often see high engagement metrics with native advertising. But engaging with a native ad does not necessarily mean the brand will see lift in whatever metric it is looking for. This presents an interesting challenge for native advertising and one for brands to consider when they evaluate their native options.
Brands must balance between purely interesting content and serving their commercial interests. Consider the hypothetical example of a manufacturer of copy machines. If they promote a sponsored post about how collation changed the face of copying, it might be interesting enough for some users to click on the post. If a user then clicks and reads some fraction of the post, what has the brand accomplished? Based on the implementation, possibly nothing. The user learned about collation, not about the brand -- and that person is possibly no more likely to buy that brand's products than he or she was before.
Compared to banner advertising, native ads generally have a significantly higher click-through but significantly less upfront branding. Unclicked banners actually have some incidental branding impact -- explaining why at least some advertisers tolerate post-view conversion attribution for banner ads despite the risk of fraud.
If the sponsored post includes an explicit "brand bump" -- a callout to specific products or market expertise -- significantly deep into the article, then the post will likely result in some degree of brand lift. The article might include ancillary branding around the post itself, such as the sponsor's Facebook feed in the right rail. The question is then what percent of users are actually impacted by the advertising campaign. Who sees the pre-click branding, and who sees the post-click branding (including either the brand bump or the ancillary messaging)?
Consumers will engage with native advertising at a click-through rate higher than banner ads. But advertisers must consider the effect of what they're paying for. Many different native ad strategies have different goals. Some are commerce driven, and others focus on promoting branded content. Advertisers must ensure that the strategy they use aligns with their goals.
Native advertising is deceptive
The key to effective native advertising is disclosure. With proper disclosure, users don't feel deceived, and publishers maintain their editorial integrity. The question is simply what makes for sufficient disclosure. The answer is not simple, and the FTC has recently indicated that it might have an opinion on this matter. But a publisher should feel comfortable if it has confidence that a reasonable consumer will understand that the content is sponsored. Since every publisher site looks and feels different, there is no one universal standard. There is always room for bad actors, but as long as a publisher acts responsibly, native advertising will not be deceptive.
Native advertising is easy for advertisers
Verdict: True and false
Effective native advertising requires an advertiser to produce content that is both interesting to the consumer and capable of achieving the commercial goals. Brands that already produce this sort of content will find no challenge beyond identifying the content that their various demographics organically consume. Advertisers that do not naturally produce content appropriate for native advertising will find it more challenging to drive meaningful results.
Various technology providers enable advertisers to understand what content resonates among their consumers, and others provide insights into the sort of content in the industry that drives engagement. Armed with this type of data, the process of creating effective native advertising can be simplified and enhanced significantly.
Native advertising is hard for websites to implement
If a publisher chooses to develop its own native advertising solution, they will hit several technical hurdles such as budgeting, attribution, and tracking. These are not unique challenges to implementing native advertising, but rather apply to any ad-serving stack.
With native advertising, a publisher can focus more directly on optimizing the user experience. Rather than designing around banner ads, native advertising actually liberates a publisher to develop solely for its interface.
Native doesn't scale
Verdict: Mostly false
Effective native ads generally match, to some degree, the look and feel of the publisher. It would be terribly cumbersome for an advertiser to create a unique version of its content for each publication. As one might expect, several enterprising technology companies have stepped in and developed solutions that automatically reformat and optimize a brand's content for the different contexts in which it might appear, rendering this roughly as challenging as a running a standard banner ad campaign.
A subset of native advertising, sponsored posts have additional challenges. They should, to some degree, match the editorial voice of the publications in which they appear. So for each sponsored post, there are only so many publications that would be appropriate. Banner ads are expected to be completely stand-alone units and, thus, while context improves their performance, there is no expectation that they will be relevant to the content of the page. So there are some limitations for sponsored posts relative to banner ads when it comes to breadth of availability inventory. But for native advertising other than sponsored posts, these restrictions are less relevant.
Native advertising alienates readers
Properly executed native advertising will not alienate readers. This means clear identification of promoted content, engaging and relevant content, and moderation. If one adheres to these tenets, users will likely prefer native advertising to banner ads.
Native is anything that's not a banner
Verdict: True and false
Native advertising must be, in some way, integrated into the flow of content and harmonious with the context in which it sits. Just because an ad isn't a banner doesn't make it native. Interstitials, pre-rolls, expandables, push-downs, and the like are non-banner ads that are, with the exception of unique circumstances, not native.
Native advertising needs to click through to a publisher's articles
Native advertising should be integrated seamlessly into the flow of content consumption. When industry players place various additional restrictions on what native advertising must be, it is generally out of self-interest. Facebook sponsored posts and Google AdWords, the two most prevalent forms of native advertising on the web today, do not click through to a publisher's articles. It is unreasonable to apply a global standard to native ads on other sites that would exclude both of these.
Native advertising means sponsored articles
BuzzFeed's sponsored articles are native. But are third-party content-marketing videos, placed after a publisher's content, reasonably considered to be native ads? It depends on who you ask. The most sweeping, accurate generalization is that banner ads are not native.
It is definitely not the case that native ads must be sponsored posts or articles -- this is generally just a single type of implementation for a single type of publisher. Practically, asking whether a certain form of advertising is "native" is simply an exercise in nomenclature. The better questions are simply:
1. What is the goal that the advertising is trying to achieve?
2. Does the form of advertising in question actually deliver?
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