The Writings on Your Wall: Native Advertising

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In March 2011, Buzzfeed CEO Jon Steinberg set the advertising world’s collective mind racing with his theory that ads on sites like Facebook, Twitter and his own platform work because people are happier with advertising or forms of revenue generation that “fit into the context”. He was talking about so-called ‘native ads’.

Fast forward two years and Yahoo bought Tumblr in an apparent native ad power buy; the US Online Publishers’ Association forecast that by the start of 2014, 90 per cent of its members would have ‘gone native’; and AOL UK has predicted that 40 per cent of its revenues would come from these types of ads this year.

Looking to address everything from banner blindness and fat fingers to lousy mobile executions, native has become one of the most talked about topics for mobile marketers, publishers and brands.

Piers North, strategy director of Yahoo UK, says the combination of the arrival of mobile, plus more focus on ROI, data and biddable media is creating the perfect environment for a native advertising storm. “But digital people talking native is like economists talking about the economy – they’re not completely agreed about what is going on.”

“Native is actually a tricky thing to define,” explains Alex Kozloff, head of mobile at the IAB. “If an ad is completely native, it will be a bit different for everyone.”

Echoing this, Lee Baker, ex-head of the UK’s Association of Online Publishers, now at native advertising specialist Respond, adds: “All publishers will define native differently depending on what they’re offering, but when non-traditional publishers moved away from banners, that was a big flag to everyone else that there is another way of doing things.”

While Google went native before the idea even had a name (via its paid search listings, which incidentally do disproportionally well on mobile), Facebook and Twitter are widely cited as the great publishing pioneers of the new wave of native. But there are some who say they aren’t the future. “It’s the disruptors that are showing what we could call ‘traditional premium publishers’ a view of the future, but I wouldn’t say Facebook is best of breed in native,” Baker says.

Native GreenpeaceNative or premium?
His colleague, Respond CMO Guy Cookson, agrees. “Facebook is difficult to offer at a premium; as it’s user-generated content, the context is almost random.” Facebook and Twitter ads look just like the content in which they sit, and the data they have access to ensures some degree of targeting. But the question is whether the content can be truly relevant, given the nature of the spontaneous conversations happening on social platforms.

While some see native as transformative, and constantly evolving, others see it as nothing new. Susan Bidel, senior analyst for marketing leadership professionals at Forrester Research, says that what makes native different is its lack of industry standards. “Other media have their own versions of native: advertorials in print; infomercials in broadcast,” she says. “The differences between digital ‘native’ and other forms of native advertising rest in the existence, or lack thereof, of industry-wide rules of engagement and in the varying levels of transparency with the consumer on the source of the content.”

By transparency, Bidel is referring to ‘on behalf of’, ‘presented by’ and ‘in association with’, just three ways to describe the brand partnerships taking over your content feed. Everybody seems to agree that content needs to be clearly labelled, or risk losing credibility with the audience, but the whole advertising affair seems to be becoming more discreet.

“Here we are witnessing a rather ironic twist,” says Matevž Klanjšek, founder and chief product officer at Celtra. “Display ads were originally designed to stand out of the background, to be distinct from the environment where they are displayed. Their power was exactly in their prominence, aggressiveness, and their conflict with the host environment. Today we are redesigning them to be exactly the opposite – nice, quiet, shy ads that are rather ashamed to be ads.”

Native IBMMeaningful engagement
Despite this strange status for native ads, the concept is clearly generating interest. At Nativo, the phones haven’t stopped ringing since the native ad server platform secured $3.5m (£2.1m) in funding back in April last year to develop its technology. “In the UK and the US, we started to see strong interest from agencies and brands in mid-Q3 2013,” says Justin Choi, Nativo’s president and CEO. “The questions in the marketplace have changed from ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ to ‘how?’”

Choi says native ads should not be an interruptive experience. “It’s an opportunity for marketers to deliver a more meaningful engagement and an opportunity for publishers to deliver that engagement without driving users off of their sites. But many executions will send you out to another page, so the ads look native but the experience is not.”

Cue Buzzfeed’s latest campaigns, including a native piece for the Microsoft Surface, somewhat shoehorning the computing giant’s ‘buy our tablets’ message into the viral site’s ‘tell every story with a gif’ idea, via a ‘12 creative ways to interpret a job description’ story. The content is in no way helpful for jobseekers, should they be using Buzzfeed for careers advice, but it also breaks Nativo’s golden rule by sending users out of the publisher site to view Microsoft’s sales video. Nevertheless, more than 60,000 people made it to the bottom of the piece to view the video, and Buzzfeed is a consistent top player in Sharethrough’s leader board.

Not only are some publishers and advertisers slightly missing the goal with native campaigns, they may not be native at all. “The definition has also been stretched since we got funding in an effort to leverage the buzz around native,” Choi says. “Some companies are using it to describe anything that leverages content and to describe any non-standard unit. We see the industry eventually differentiating between in-stream ads that look native but act more like banners, and ads that are truly native.”

Native NutsJournalistic ethics
Much has been said about the editorial ethics of native – ads that don’t look like ads tend to make traditional publishers nervous – but a whole host of reputable publishers are now committed to native as part of the marketing mix, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, WIRED, the New Statesman, Gawker and the BBC’s commercial arm. But try to track down those doing it on mobile and your choice becomes more limited. Looking at four mobile-optimised site offerings from The Atlantic,, Forbes and Buzzfeed, and most have started and stopped at the possibility of in-stream, labelled editorial-style content.

Ask consumers what they think of native ads, and most will admit that they didn’t know they were enjoying, and enthusiastically sharing, advertising content. Perhaps what makes it highly shareable is the fact that it is unrelated to the brand. Take Pepsi’s widely shared ‘10 Beautiful Places in the World That Actually Exist’ on Buzzfeed. It’s so discreet, the reader doesn’t necessarily notice it’s anything other than standard Buzzfeed content – it’s unclear whether anyone will remember the Pepsi brand when they’re standing in the corner shop trying to decide what brand  of fizzy pop to buy.

But brand advertising is one area that has struggled on mobile, and native formats do show potential for a softer approach to engagement. “As brands create more content and attention becomes the key performance indicator, we will see budgets quickly shifting away from other advertising into native to drive engagement with that content,” Nativo’s Choi says. “We see the industry standardising around engagement metrics – not only for native but for other advertising as well.”

For those brands and publishers struggling to make the move onto mobile, and make it profitable, native therefore offers another avenue to explore on the new and fast-evolving medium. “We shouldn’t simply write off standard ad formats,” says Celtra’s Klanjšek. “They can be great performers and exactly because of their standardisation they are also much more scalable. Therefore we like to look at native ads as one of the options – a very important one – that advertisers should have in their mobile advertising arsenal.”