Marketing Basics: Native Advertising

For some years now, the term ‘native advertising’ has been a buzzword among online marketers. But not everyone that uses this term is truly able to explain just exactly what it’s about. Critics often refer to the term as being an ‘(advertising) wolf in sheep’s clothing’ or ‘Trojan horse journalism’. For other’s the current internet landscape, one composed of increasing mobile internet use and banner blindness, the trend is seen as the future of online advertising. Often content marketing and native marketing are considered to be one and the same — others may refer to this topic as ‘paid media’, e.g. paid advertisements, and hence see the two terms as two distinct practices.

What remains clear, however, is that there are many different opinions and definitions for this topic area. We’ll shed some light on the subject by introducing the most important formats of native advertising.

What is native advertising?

Implicit with its very name, native advertising refers to a discipline in which ads take on a more natural appearance, most often one that reflects an editorial look or feel; here, a context-intensive approach is often taken, meaning that the content ideally matches the environment in which it’s placed. Both the platform’s design as well as the expected behavior of its users are the most important focus points with this style of ad. These points should be adapted and addressed as much as they possibly can.

What makes this form of advertising special is the way in which published content is mixed with advertisements. The original content and the advertisements should ideally blend together so well, that the user experience remains almost identical, regardless of what is being looked at or read. As is the case with content marketing, the user remains the focus point here, and the content of the ad should speak to their perceived needs.

Classifying advertisements in editorial environments

The average user can hardly distinguish native advertising content from other forms of content published on the page they’re viewing, which of course is precisely what is desired. In order to make sure that the content blends in with the site as much as possible, the only clues that reveal their true nature are the labels ‘sponsored post’ or ‘in cooperation with’.

It’s required to indicate to users that such content is actually an advertisement, but there are no clear legal requirements regarding the particular details of such labelling. By using expressions like ‘in cooperation with’ and avoiding terms like ‘advertisement’ or simply ‘ad’, many publishers aim to conceal the commercial origins of their content. This practice doesn’t go unnoticed by critics, many of whom aim to brand this behavior as product placement. Without any clear labeling, native advertising would completely mislead users.

Where are native advertisements used?

Native ads are generally found on websites that publish editorial content (e.g. news sites, magazines, or blogs). They can also be placed in company newsletters, or alternatively private individuals can adopt native advertising formats to push own publicity needs. But what makes a certain website popular for advertisers? It’s a site’s popularity, and hence its broad reach, that advertisers are interested in. What’s key here is to find a solid match that works for both the perspective advertiser as well as the target group’s field of interest.

Native ads are often found on a website’s site map, and are commonly recommended to be read by the website operator or listed as suggested content among the site’s organic content. Regarding the location of an advertisement, this is generally left up to the site operator; either they show the ad together with the rest of the site’s editorial content, or they are collected in a separate portion dedicated to foreign content. The most important thing to take into account here is that native ads should be labeled as such.

Example from ‘the Telegraph’

As the native advertisement from the British newspaper below shows, ads are placed among individual posts (see screenshot). Tucked neatly among new stories, the only thing that reveals the true commercial nature of the article’s content ‘How do interest rates impact your business’ is the small label underneath the photo that reads ‘Sponsored’.

On the travel and lifestyle portal, Thrillist, sponsored content is boldly indicated with a caption and symbol reading ‘latest sponsored’. In contrast to the advertisements placed among regular content as seen in the example above, here, advertorials and listicles are not placed alongside the rest of the site’s content (see screen shot below) and instead are grouped together in a space specifically dedicated for such ads.

Example Huffington Post

As opposed to displaying paid content on the main start page, this next approach recommends users additional material only after selecting an article. Here, users are displayed additional content that’s compiled within the category ‘You may like’. The source of the ad is revealed in a small, grey font located below the article’s image and title (see below).

Native ads: from content to tracking

At its core, native ads are nothing more than paid advertisements, which, in contrast to more traditional banner advertisements, match their surroundings in terms of both looks and content. The effort involved in native ad campaigns is much higher when compared to display ads; this is due to the most important component involved in the discipline: content. Here are the most important steps at a glance.

First Step: The basics of native advertising: the content

Native advertising just can’t work without content, so it’s important for advertisers to create content themselves or outsource this task to marketing agencies. Just as is the case when developing a classic content strategy, it’s crucial to ensure that all the material is tailored to a specific target group. Many different formats are at users’ disposal: whether it involves using photo galleries, videos, or developing tutorials, the type of website in question always determines the type of website that’s to be created. Following this, it’s important to provide creative, premium content. Neither the brand nor the company should be the focus point here; instead, it’s important to make sure to always add value for the reader, as such content is shared by users, which increases the potential for going viral.

Here, a major difference to advertorials can be observed: the goal of an advertorial is to first and foremost put a brand or a product at the foreground and so stimulate a purchase incentive. For native ads, on the other hand, the use should primarily benefit the consumer.

Second Step: Placing the content on the right website

The next step is make sure that content is displayed on the proper platform. Depending on which technology a company uses, this step is usually carried out automatically. There are many different providers that make use of native ad servers in order to place their customers’ content on all relevant channels. These providers preside over special advertising networks intended for native marketing purposes, and convey relevant editorial websites to advertisers. Servers take on the automated display and scaling of the respective entries. Responsive design ensures for seamless adaption to mobile devices.

Many systems go so far as to automatically match their native titles and teasers to the target website of their audiences. Together with the right design, native ads are able to blend in and match their surroundings, adopting the look and feel of the partner website. This approach doesn’t disturb the flow of the reader, making them less likely to develop a kneejerk reaction against the commercial message. This latter point presents one major advantage of native advertising: given the similarity of the advertising content to the editorial content, there’s less of a reason to have to fight for the reader’s interest.

Third Step: Optimizing campaigns

As is the case with other advertising campaigns, for example ones carried out via Google’s display network or as a part of real-time auctions, there’s more to this advertising method than simply displaying ads; optimization also plays an important role. Depending on the provider, it’s possible to use a large number of different analytical functions with the help of the native ad server. Tracking individual campaigns and ads and evaluating them is essential for those wishing to optimize campaigns and exhaust budgets in the most efficient manner. To this end, optimizing everything from individual content elements to teasers and titles is now the name of the game. Some providers also provide various methods for carrying out quality control methods. With the help of A/B testing, heat maps, click maps, and other options, it’s possible to track content and find out valuable information based on these findings.

Native Advertising with social networks

Native advertising can also be used with the help of social networks, like Facebook or Twitter. These social channels offer an excellent opportunity for companies to spread their content free of charge – but influencing just who views these individual posts proves to be a difficult task.

Facebook, however, also offers so-called sponsored posts. In exchange for payment, it’s possible to expand the reach of posts beyond your normal fan base; it’s also possible to further specify the parameters with which target groups are determined. And just as with Facebook ads, companies are also able to determine which user groups are to receive these posts in their newsfeeds.

Unlike Facebook ads, which are located on the right side of the viewer’s page, sponsored posts can hardly be distinguished from other timeline entries. Here, the only difference is that the label ‘sponsored’ appears. Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram also offer the option of placing native ads in users’ newsfeeds.

Native ads in the fight against banner blindness

Native ads are full of potential for marketers. According to a survey cited in digital marketing magazine, Econtent 66% of users said they preferred viewing ads presented to them in native ad format as opposed to traditional banner ads. 

By simultaneously informing and entertaining users, they are able to enjoy positive user experiences, which enables marketers to brand their products and services more naturally. This means that advertisers should exclusively employ high-quality, informative content that is entertaining when enlisting native advertising. Creating these ads and coming up with suitable campaigns for them appears to be much more time intensive than a display campaign at first glance. But these extra steps are well worth the effort, as internet users perceive them to be much more useful. Ideally, as mentioned above, content should be tailored to the needs of the user and should appear to match their surroundings much better than simple banner ads.


In summary: the most important rules for native marketing are:

  • Native ads match the quality of their surrounding editorial content. The higher the quality of the content in which the ad is to appear, the more professional the native advertising needs to be.
  • Native ads are not advertising texts or press releases — they should add value for the reader, meaning the brand or product should remain in the background.
  • Credibility is also a very important factor: make sure to always correctly label your ads so as not to mislead your readers.