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A definition of native advertising -- finally

A definition of native advertising -- finally Rebecca Lieb

Native advertising. Perhaps never before has an industry term been used so often and with less precision. It seems the phrase means whatever anyone wants it to mean at any given point in time (usually to the advantage of someone trying to sell someone something).

Obfuscation and imprecision does little to drive innovation or industry development. To that end, as a research analyst, I've just authored (together with a crack team of colleagues who cannot go unacknowledged) "Defining and Mapping the Native Advertising Landscape." (As with all research published by my firm, it's available at no cost under Creative Commons. Please feel free to download a copy.)


Let's cut to the chase. Having conducted interviews with well over two dozen publishers, social networks, brands, agencies, vendors, and industry experts, here is our definition of native advertising:

"Native advertising is a form of converged media that combines paid and owned media into a form of commercial messaging that is fully integrated into, and often unique to, a specific delivery platform."

Yes, there's hype associated with the term. Sure, differentiating "native" form "sponsored," "branded," and "advertorial" can sometimes border on splitting hairs. That aside, we believe native advertising's growing popularity brings opportunities for the entire digital media ecosystem.

Publishers can benefit from new forms of premium inventory. Social platforms are developing new advertising products. Brands have new opportunities for attention, engagement, and message syndication. Agencies can benefit from creative and media opportunities. Technology vendors are building new solutions to facilitate and scale both the creative and delivery aspects of native advertising.

The benefits of native advertising cannot be reaped without adhering to key recommendations and guidelines. Below are a few of the key recommendations contained in the larger research report:

Transparency, disclosure, and trust

We've been through this before. As with the early days of search advertising, word-of-mouth marketing, and pay-for-play blogging, industry standards will emerge around the disclosure of what's paid and what's editorial content on a variety of media platforms in addition to individual publisher policies. In addition to overt disclosure on publisher and social media platforms, a code of ethics is required to maintain editorial objectivity and the boundaries between publisher and editorial work. Until industry self-regulation emerges, it is imperative all parties err on the side of caution: too much, rather than too little, disclosure.

Content strategy

Without strategic directives and governance documents on voice, tone, brand, messaging, and positioning, native advertising can easily veer into alliances that strike all the wrong notes. The Economist's "Dare2GoDeep" listicle on Buzzfeed was widely mocked for being "cringe worthy" rather than striking the brand's trademark authoritative tone.


Internal departments, agencies, and vendor partners must leverage resources and ensure the brand message or story isn't fragmented across social and other platforms.

Content portability

Related to, but distinct from, adding an earned component to native advertising campaigns is working to ensure the content/creative can, wholly or in part, travel to other platforms to amplify messaging and increase awareness.


Native advertising is new, meaning ad sales teams, creatives, content creators, analytics teams, and others in the continuum are unschooled in the what's and how's. Already, companies such as Buzzfeed and Federated Media have implemented training programs to aid understanding of the tactics and strategies behind native campaigns.

Ability to scale

At present, scale is the most difficult aspect of native advertising, and it is the one technology companies are working to address. If "native" means endemic to the platform, pulling up stakes and moving a campaign from one media property to another is difficult to impossible on social platforms. Targeting and retargeting audience segments are still reserved for programmatic advertising buys. More contenders and solutions will soon emerge, but at present native versus scale is an either/or proposition.


Understand that each platform has its own unique user base, formal structure, native behaviors, and social actions. For example, a share on Facebook results in content being placed into friends' news feeds, while a "like" opts into future communications by the brand. A tweet is fleeting, while a Pinterest pin lasts until the owner of the account takes it down. In addition, tracking elements, calls to action, and other measurable elements can track the ROI of native advertising campaigns.

In three to five years, most of these problems will largely be overcome, market and product offerings will mature, and workflow structures will emerge that more closely align storytelling and content with paid advertising placements. Ultimately, native advertising will emerge as effective and powerful for brands and be accepted by users who will understand both its intent and value.

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

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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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