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Why everyone's confused about native advertising

Why everyone's confused about native advertising Rebecca Lieb

Native advertising.

Everyone's talking about it. But what is it exactly? It has something to do with ads that don't look like ads, but rather provide a degree of value in terms of being content. In that sense, native advertising is certainly a form of converged media, as it combines paid media (advertising) with owned media (content), often with the goal of generating earned media (social interaction, UGC).

Yet brands have been paying publishers to run their own content since forever. Does that mean "native advertising" is simply a neologism for what we used to call advertorial? Or branded content? Maybe it's sponsored content?

If native advertising somehow differs from older models of advertorial, sponsored, or branded content, where are the lines drawn? Does "native" necessitate some sort of technological framework to carry and/or distribute the content in question (à la products offered by The New York Times or tech startups such as OneSpot or inPowered)? Does it mean a publisher's in-house agency (think BuzzFeed, Gawker Media) was commissioned to come up with the creative?

Bottom line: The term "native advertising" raises more questions than it does answers. The value proposition of native advertising is, however, clear in a digital environment of banner blindness and plunging click-through-rates. Pre-roll ads are skipped or ignored, and email subscriber rates are eroding. Given any kind of choice, consumers are saying a clear "no" to interruptive advertising.

Native advertising lies somewhere in bridging the divide between content marketing (a pull strategy) and plain, old fashioned advertising, which is interruptive. Somewhere in its definition is probably the fact of paying for space or time (the "advertising" part). The "native" part means it is organic, conducive to the user experience, non-salesy, and offers some sort of value in and of itself as an ad (entertainment, education, or utility, for example).

Native advertising's promise, therefore, is better performing ads -- but only if metrics are defined that are "native" to "native." Digital marketing goals likely don't apply in this case. Highly customized ad solutions mean more revenue for publishers (and boy, can they use it now). Also, this means deeper creative engagements for agencies, and hopefully, a better user experience for consumers.

The fly in the ointment is that without a real definition of native advertising, it means anything you want it to mean. Or anything whoever's trying to sell it to you wants it to mean. Confusion in the marketplace is not a good thing (though it can benefit certain constituents).

This is why, as a research analyst, my next project will be to define native advertising, as well as to map the landscape of products and technologies related to the practice. (I'm also part of an IAB taskforce that will work to define the term -- it's therefore important to note the research will be my own work, not that of a committee.)

As this project is just kicking off, I'd love to invite your input. What do you believe native advertising is? Isn't? What are the important companies in the space? Please let me know, either via email or in the comments section.

I'll report back soon. Watch this space!

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Young woman with doubtful expression" image via Shutterstock.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Polly Payne

2013, May 21

With the rise of the visual web, native ads are allowing brands talk to consumers in a format that the consumer has already requested. The consumer is finally being added back into the equation with emphasis placed on consumer experience.
At Triple Lift we define a native ad as one that is related to the content of the page and presented in a context. A native advertisement is one where, without otherwise being identified as an ad, it could be considered genuine content. Read More - http://blog.triplelift.com/post/45120804438/what-is-native-advertising
TripleLift is a leader in the native ad space. We would love to join your project research, because it is our passion.

Commenter: Guy Cookson

2013, May 21

The way we define native advertising at Respond is pretty simple. It's advertising that adapts to the unique look and feel of each individual site. This provides a more integrated and attractive user experience for visitors, and means advertisers benefit much more from association with the publisher's brand, relevance to the content, and attention from the audience.

If you'd like any specific input based on our experience working with premium publishers and advertisers in native advertising over the last three years please just let me know guy.cookson [at] respondhq.com