To begin I’m going to repeat a headline I read last week: ‘Facebook is more popular for native advertising than Twitter’.

This headline derives from Hexagram’s latest report on native advertising. The report elaborates: Facebook is the third most-popular channel for native advertising, with Twitter still lagging far behind. 

However… if you’re anything like me, you might not know what native advertising actually is, and all of the above information may just merge into the background of data white noise.

As a relative newcomer to the digital marketing world, I’ve decided to begin a series of ‘beginner’s guides’ to uncover what is meant by certain terms, trends and technological advances in digital; being both a travel guide and a personal investigation.

So if you’re tired of being the person nodding and smiling at the back of the room, feeling increasingly powerless in the face of overwhelming jargon, come with me and we’ll embark on a voyage of discovery together.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to talk to me or look me in the eye, you just have to sit there.

Here are some further juicy stats found in the report…

  • 62% of publishers currently offer native advertising, followed by 41% of brands and 34% of agencies. 
  • 66% of brands say they create their own content for native ads.
  • The most popular forms of native advertising are blog posts, accounting for 65%. With articles at 63% and Facebook at 56%.
  • Brands are most likely to use Facebook to publish native advertising.

If that’s not enough, here’s a graph:

Those are some hardcore, interesting stats, and here is where many of you will stop reading. 

What is Native Advertising?

It’s a method of advertising which seeks to provide content in the context of the user’s experience.

Thanks Wikipedia!

Let’s be a proper journalist though and check a second source:

Sharethrough’s CEO Dan Greenberg says that Native Advertising is:

a form of media that’s built into the actual visual design and where the ads are part of the content.

Great. They back each other up and seem simple enough. In fact, native advertising sounds to me like the old advertorials you used to find in print magazines.

It would appear that advertorials are still around.

Publishers of advertorials stress that these ads are not meant to trick the reader. The balance between creating paid content that fits into the house-style of the magazine and it being, by its very definition, an advert is a tricky accomplishment. 

The advertorial above clearly says ‘promotion’ in the top right corner. It still however doesn’t stop a lot of people from reading halfway through and getting annoyed that they were actually reading an advert all along.

Is this worse than a more obvious ad, which you can choose to ignore at your own will? This was in music magazine Mojo, so it should be pretty obvious that this is an advert just by virtue of the fact it’s about a car. The competition to see indie-landfill band The Enemy is tenuous is best.

Anyway, I digress. We haven’t even got to online yet.

Further definitions of native advertising

Some people in the digital industry believe that native advertising is the communication that occurs between brands and followers on a social media site.

This seems a bit nebulous. If some brands are using their Twitter account as a customer service channel, then surely it’s no different to a customer helpline. A customer helpline certainly isn’t a method of advertising.

Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer defines native advertising as “advertising that takes advantage of a platform in the ways consumers are actually using it”. For instance Promoted Tweets on Twitter, Sponsored Stories on Facebook. 

Here on my timeline, reed.co.uk are gently hinting that I should be looking for a new job via a Promoted Tweet…

On Facebook here’s a Sponsored Story…

This is a targeted ad on the right hand side of the page. Someone, somewhere knows I’ve just bought an engagement ring and therefore will need wedding rings in the near future.

Little do they know that my most pressing concern is portaloo hire.

Here’s a suggested post within my news feed…

It looks just like every other post or status update on my timeline, however it’s a paid for piece of advertising that emulates the Facebook experience.

The advertiser’s intent is for native ads to be more transparent than magazine advertorials. However it’s also the intention to make the advert feel less intrusive and thus increase the chance that a user will click on it. Again, it’s a delicate balance.

Pinterest has started trialling a similar method with its Promoted Pins.

Working much like regular pins, these have a special promoted label.

Pinterest has promised to keep these tasteful and transparent with clear ‘promoted’ labelling, and remain relevant to the user.

To complicate matters further, there are two types of Native Advertising: closed and open

Closed

This refers to brands creating content or profiles within an existing platform – Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest – and then promoting its own content using the same look and feel of the respective platform.

This is all done manually within the given channel’s framework. 

Open

Quite simply, and somewhat obviously, this is the opposite of ‘closed’. 

Here content is created by a brand outside of any existing framework. That content is then distributed via a third-party across multiple platforms. This third-party adapts the content to the various styles and formats of whatever platform it has been published on.

There are many different companies that offer this service, and most offer cross-device, cross-publication scale and control.

Open native advertising offers a level of automation that closed does not.

Problems…

Here are the problems or challenges that I can see in adopting native advertising.

With open native advertising, the content is identical whether it appears on Facebook, Twitter or any other platform or website. There is little targeting or thought as to who the audience is. Closed certainly offers more advantages in terms of tailoring the adverts and ensuring relevancy and personalisation.

In fact this is the main strength of native advertising over display ads. Native advertising requires a huge amount of creativity in tailoring the content to the platform and user.

This obviously requires a lot more effort, but in the current environment where banner ad click through rates have gone from 9% in 2000 to 0.2% in 2012, a more tailored approach has to be sought.

At the moment there are no real performance measurements for native advertising available as it’s a relatively new category. On social media sites a brand can see how many shares, likes or retweets a post gets.

Elsewhere, it’s possible to measure the pageviews from the launch of a native ad and the subsequent increase. Mainly it seems that brands and publishers look at the level of engagement achieved with a native ad. This is a fairly nebulous measurement and is up to the brand to devise its own metrics and system for analysis.

User trust is key to native advertising success. It’s imperative that the content is clearly labeled as an advert to promote complete transparency. However the content also has to match the platform.

An advert’s aim is to make money, raise awareness or both. It could be considered that native advertising is a tricksy way to capture user’s attention offguard and achieve a certain number of accidental click-throughs. This is where native advertising treads into shady territory.

I’m very aware this is only a very brief overview of native advertising and misses a lot of nuance and complexity, however this is just meant to be a brief introduction by way of a learning experience. If there’s anything important that I’ve missed please feel free to educate me further in the comments below. 

Further reading for beginners

During my first year at Econsultancy I’ve been making a point of writing beginner’s guides to any new terms or phrases I find particularly baffling, or that I might suspect other people may find baffling too. 

The following related articles should help clear up a few things…