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What Is Native Advertising?

There's been quite a bit of buzz about "native advertising" lately, along with some confusion as to what it actually is. In short, native advertising is a marketing method through which the advertiser gains user attention by providing content that's integrated within the natural context and flow of their experience. Native ads strive to follow both form and function within the user environment for a less intrusive effect. The word "native" refers to formatting the ad to feel consistent and "native to" the realm in which the user's chosen media exists.

Blurred Lines

Not too long ago, media content and advertising were easy to differentiate; TV played host to both television shows (content) and commercials (advertising) that were distinct from one another. When a commercial came on, it was easy for viewers to leave and go get some more cheese puffs, or just change the channel.

These days, it's not that cut and dried. "Product placement" in movies and television, a predecessor to native advertising, has been going on for quite awhile in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. (Remember that classic scene from the Wayne's World movie where Wayne and Garth promoted Pizza Hut, Doritos, Reebok, Nuprin and Pepsi all in the span of about a minute?) Most product placement is more subtle than that, using beverage and car brands in a more natural and integrated way within the movie's plot.

Integrated Paid Content

Another precursor to native advertising is the traditional "advertorial," or paid article placement that attempts to look like a real article (but with "advertisement" stamped somewhere in the margins of the page.) This approach has evolved into publisher-produced brand content that is far less obviously an ad than the old-school advertorial.

Paid search advertising offered by Google AdWords alongside organic search engine results were another early manifestation of native advertising. Since then, online native advertising has evolved into the form of "in-feed" ads, which are being used by many of the largest social platforms in the world. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest all offer this option for advertisers, and the publishing industry is following suit. Forbes, Time Inc., the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the New York Times are all using integrated advertising in their desktop and mobile content. They strive to dovetail their ad content with the form and functionality of their daily editorial feed.

The most effective native advertising makes the ad blend as seamlessly and naturally as possible within the user experience. Ads ideally match the design and feel of the user content experience and objective and "read" like legitimate content. The ads are created consistent with expected user experience and function as closely as possible to similar natural non-marketing content.

Telling Statistics

But does native advertising work? Is it cost-effective? Recent studies by organizations like ShareThrough have found that in-feed native ad placements are seen by 25% more users than standard banner-type internet ads. These ads registered an 18% rise in buying intent in the viewer for the integrated product. An impressive 97% of mobile advertising buyers reported native advertising to be either somewhat or very effective at meeting their marketing and branding objectives. An MDG infographic has perhaps the most telling statistic: 70% of internet users reported a preference of being marketed to with native advertising rather than traditional methods.

Photo sharing platforms seem to benefit the most from native advertising. Pinterest and Instagram lead the pack, with studies showing the retention rate for visual data can be as high as 65% (compared with around 10% for all-text information.) Pinterest and Instagram have tens of millions of followers, and users are able to earn money from their posts by agreeing to link to brands within their postings via large networks.

The Evolution of Native Advertising

Twitter's MoPub product creates native ads within user Twitter streams to show posts from brands relevant to the context around them in the user's Twitter feed. Facebook has had success letting advertisers pay to overlay a brand message or logo on the margins of user photos and videos. Lead generation, click-through and direct sales have all been robust as a result.

Internet company BuzzFeed takes native advertising to the Nth degree, as they are responsible for creating their channel and most of their content and ads. The bulk of their revenues are derived from compelling and click-worthy list-style advertising, custom videos and other content that's hard to discern from purely editorial content. While BuzzFeed is saturated with native content, other companies use it more sparingly. Native advertising more commonly takes the form of a suggested article or post on Facebook, a promoted tweet on Twitter, Tumblr's promoted posts, or a full-page ad between Flipboard pages.

As native advertising evolves, it continues to use branding in online forums to connect with people as naturally and organically as possible. Advertising is becoming increasingly built into the design of the content, not separate from it. Content marketing is said to fall under the umbrella term of native advertising. It refers to placing sponsor-funded content adjacent to similar editorial content, or allowing viewers easy access to "content you might like" sponsored and paid for by the marketer. Native advertising formats cover promoted articles, videos, images, and music, but it's sure to move into other media in creative and unexpected ways.

Finding Balance

Critics of native advertising lament the "subliminal" effect that it can have and point out that despite its goal of being less intrusive, it's actually more intrusive in some ways due to its potential to be a "sneaky" tactic. However, proponents of native advertising say that when it's done well, the user is still able to enjoy the "meat" and value of the content within an online environment without feeling pressured to click on a link or read a tangential article.

Regardless of the assessment, it's clear that native style advertising is here to stay. However, to succeed long-term, marketers employing native ad techniques must continually be aware of the fine line between expressing their brand message through content and being deceptive. Finding this sweet spot is well worth the effort; those advertisers who are able to strike this perfect balance with their native advertising efforts will be the ones most likely to reap its rewards going forward.

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