There are many articles out there defining what native advertising is and what it should look like.
There are native formats (simply in-stream ads, like expanding video), sponsored content (shaped by the publisher), content syndication (related content promoted through platforms such as Outbrain) and advertorials (often written by the advertiser).
There are blurred lines between some of these formats but what they have in common is a terribly misleading descriptor. This sort of advertising is anything but native, it is invasive, lurid, and can only survive as such.
Native advertising must, of course, be distinguishable from publisher content, by law.
Further than that, it should stick out like a sore thumb lest it leave readers unnerved by a conflict of interest or disappointed by the standard of content.
However, if we accept that native advertising must stand out in order to maintain readers’ trust it leaves publishers with a formatting challenge and advertisers with a content challenge.
The publisher’s formatting challenge
The difficulty of scale
Native advertising is difficult to scale. That’s because the publisher does not want to overwhelm the reader with foreign content (even the most beautifully crafted sponsored content).
Publishers must get the balance right to ensure their site or app is trusted, distinctive in style and maintains editorial standards.
Part of the problem of scale has been created by a display advertising model that the IAB admits had become horribly bloated (and needs to be ‘leaner’).
This has created disenfranchised web users that have installed ad blockers and publishers who have relied on an unsustainable revenue model without creating new streams of income.
— ⚒ Chris Messina ⚔ (@chrismessina) October 15, 2015
Content that stands out but fits in
BuzzFeed is one publisher that manages to confound the rules and mix native advertising seamlessly. It does this through its dedicated creative team and an often tangential approach to brand promotion that suits BuzzFeed’s whimsical and humourous content.
This also plays well with BuzzFeed’s large social audience; essentially, the audience doesn’t care whether a post is promoted or not.
However, even with BuzzFeed, there are categories where native advertising is inappropriate, such as news.
Other publishers have succeeded by placing native advertising carefully, perhaps only in certain categories or on separate microsites.
The Guardian and The New York Times have succeeded with sponsorship often tied to standalone projects, such as Guardian Witness, originally partnered with EE.
However, with other forms of native such as syndicated content and advertorial, the challenge is to strike the balance between content that stands out and fits in.
This is easier for online only publishers with a different heritage to print journalism. The Daily Mail Online is one example of a print publisher that has diversified its online content to such a degree as to create a fertile environment for native.
With so many articles on the page, the reader is encouraged to browse and scroll and this scattergun approach is well suited to advertorial.
On the other hand, The Guardian’s readers may be less accepting of this style of content.
It does run articles that are not written by its staff, with the label ‘brought to you by..’ though it has to be selective with where this content appears and how often.
The homogenisation of websites
Clickbait has become the standard for syndicated content (see the image below).
Each article must attract the reader in a way truly native content doesn’t need to in-situ. So, syndicated content has the effect of homogenising publisher websites because it always looks the same.
The same can be said of advertorial, which is rarely written by staff writers.
Of course, websites were already being diluted by all manner of display ads such as dynamic banners and interstitials, so publishers that try to maintain this level of display and bring in native, too, may suffer from a site that loses ‘personality’.
The advertiser’s content challenge
Ongoing partnership and sponsored content
The work to create great sponsored content is a more long-term play for advertisers than a traditional display campaign.
This means the risks are potentially higher, as brands need to collaborate on considered pieces of branded content.
A greater requirement for strategic input and oversight from advertisers means sponsored content is more resource-heavy on both ends of the publisher-advertiser partnership.
Brands will need to continue working with a publisher to refine and improve their approach.
Impactful sponsored content will not come cheap and some smaller brands will be less able to dip their toes in the water, especially considering the relatively small size of the market.
To scale native advertising, more publishers will have to provide opportunities and brands will have to dedicate more budget in their media mix.
The future of native
The future of native is clear. In the words of Anna Watkins at Guardian Labs:
At its best it is branded content that adds value and a really positive experience for readers. At its worst it is commercial content, and poor-quality commercial content, dressed up and therefore hoodwinking readers into thinking it’s commercially independent.
If commercial content works for both publisher and advertiser but not for the reader, there will be a lag before the publisher realises whether this is adversely affecting its reputation.
Of course, if the publisher reputation is undermined by native advertising, this creates a catch 22 when trying to lure in new advertisers.