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There are some fundamental principles that apply to native advertising if publishers are not to leave their readers with a sense of unease.

  • It has to be written by journalists or at least closely in line with regular editorial and tone.
  • It can’t be full of brand or product mentions.
  • It has to fit with the user experience, the design must be in-keeping with the rest of the publication.

This is what The Guardian and BuzzFeed are trying to achieve. Granted, BuzzFeed can achieve this whilst also including some brand and product mentions because the light-hearted nature of its content allows for this (see the BuzzFeed and Purina video).

In essence, this isn’t too far removed from contract publishing, except of course we’re no longer talking simple magazines. This is promoted and sponsored content that can take the form of not just articles but even new platforms (see Guardian Witness and EE).

The aim of this content is less about pushing products but about changing or enhancing the consumer perception of a brand. So, in the case of the Live Better Challenge on the Guardian, the aim to position Unilever as a company that is intent on sustainability.

guardian witness

Native formats

When some people in advertising talk about native, what they mean is a native format. Native formats allow ads to take on the appearance of content. But all too often the content itself doesn’t feel native.

Native formats can largely be split into two categories.

In-stream advertising

Facebook, Tumblr, BuzzFeed, Twitter – all these platforms use in-stream advertising, which isn’t yet a recognised IAB format.

Many ad networks, including mobile platforms, refer to ‘native ads’ that can be purchased on a CPM basis, perhaps using real-time bidding. Although conditions for matching advertisers to publishers can be manually overseen, the content of the ads is still essentially interruptive i.e. I’ll be scrolling through a mobile website and an ad will interrupt the text.

You might be familiar with this from the Guardian’s mobile app (unless you’re a premium user) though it’s pretty widespread.

Of course, there is a place for this in-stream advertising. It’s certainly less intrusve than interstitials or overlays that can be fiddly to exit. I’m just arguing that we should stop calling it native.

There’s also a middle ground to be achieved here, with semantic technology allowing contextual advertising in a native format. This can certainly be successful for advertisers targeting a specific niche, think cruises, B2B marketing tech or wedding venues. The FT’s Smart Match is an example of this kind of technology.

Native format ad, for Unilever within a football article on the Guardian

native format


Well, here’s a concept we know well.

This is a native format, just look up any advertorial from the past one hundred years. In early 20th century newspapers, the experience of many of these print ads matches that of the other articles.

On websites, advertorials are sometimes a little botched, when the design is changed, even if only subtly, to make the reader aware this is an ad (to comply with advertising standards).

Advertorials are still relevant for many audiences and for companies that don’t have a strong brand. Travel is a good example where this format is still used fairly widely, property, too.

But advertisers must remember that the reader is aware of what’s going on here. Advertorials work, but they should still have some content that is of worth to the reader.


Some see native advertising as the emperor’s new clothes. However, that’s because many are missing the point. It’s nothing new, that’s for sure, but it is a great thing for publishers.

Publishers can use their expertise to help brands reposition themselves. Publishers can do this, if they’re clever, without any adverse side effects, without losing the trust of readers.

In this way, brands can find a quicker, potentially cheaper and often further-reaching alternative to content marketing. Rather than owning the whole experience, which is obviously ideal in the longer term (see Red Bull), brands can piggyback trusted publishers.

Hopefully, what this means for the reader is a land filled with much less display advertising, publications that stay afloat generating revenue, clever subscription models, productisation and ad deals that make sense for all involved.

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