AD-Vantage Glossary: Defining “native”

Native advertising is the industry's response to banner-blindness

Native (noun, adjective)
also referred to as: native advertising, native ads, sponsored content, in-stream advertising

What it means

Native describes a variety of digital ad formats that imitate the visual and/or editorial style of the content around them. As an alternative to display advertising, native advertising attempts to create greater synergy between publisher content and advertiser messaging in order to serve more relevant ads to consumers and drive greater engagement.

Native advertising typically comes in one of two flavours: sponsored content or in-stream advertising. Native sponsored content is editorial content the advertiser produces, or pays a publisher to produce on their behalf, that is published as content but identified as “sponsored” with a marker or subheading. In-stream native advertising is display advertising that mimics the visual design of surrounding content, but usually links to an advertiser’s website or advertiser content hosted on a third-party site.

There is still significant debate within the industry over whether these two distinct formats both qualify as “native,” and differences in usage can lead to confusion between them.

What it means to you

Native advertising is the industry’s response to banner-blindness. Banner ads make up a significant portion of online spend, but users rarely engage with them and tend to ignore them completely. In response, advertisers and publishers have sought to diminish the boundary between “content” and “advertising,” so that display advertising becomes a part of the consumer’s experience (much like TV commercials) rather than a forgettable sideshow. “Native” has become a catch-all to describe a variety of distinct ad formats that embody this principle.

Native initially referred to paid editorial content co-produced by publishers and advertisers, similar to sponsored special sections or event coverage in newspapers. The content is sometimes put together by brand marketers or branded content specialists, and sometimes produced by publisher teams dedicated to sponsored content and special sections. To be effective, the content has to reflect the expectations of the publisher’s audience in terms of style, quality and subject matter; but it also has to be clearly labeled as “sponsored,” so the consumer doesn’t feel deceived.

More recently, native has come to include publisher-customized display advertising that mimics editorial content in design and placement. Producing and buying these ads is the same as producing and buying banner ads, except that instead of finished creative, the advertiser provides several key elements – for example a preview image, a headline, and a short description – and the publisher assembles them into an ad unit that resembles content thumbnails on the site. This enables the publisher to fit the content into the meat of the site without too much disruption to the user experience, and it gives advertisers the opportunity to scale campaigns across multiple publishers without being limited by standard ad formats.

The latter kind of native advertising is popular among mobile and social sites, where continuous, thumbnail-based “streams” are a popular way to organize the user experience. In-stream native ads can be sold programmatically across a large number of publishers and sites, which provides scale and ensures that the ads a user sees are relevant to their interests (using audience data and targeting). By contrast, content sponsorships are usually negotiated directly between advertisers and individual publishers, and are tailored to the publisher’s core audience. As such sponsored content takes significantly more resources to execute, and has limited potential for scale. So while in-stream provides the same broad, cross-publisher reach as banner or search advertising, sponsoring content usually means placing several strategically positioned, high-impact pieces.

The industry is divided on whether in-stream advertising truly qualifies as native. Detractors argue that a native ad not only has to look like editorial content on the homepage, but must be fully integrated into the user’s experience of the site, from thumbnail, to pageview, to comments section. In-stream ads, which often link out to the same advertiser content and product pages that banner ads do, don’t meet this criterion.

But defenders of in-stream advertising argue that regardless of where the link goes, in-stream ads are appealing and engaging to users in a way that banners aren’t, and thus solve the problem that native advertising was created to address.

Examples in the market

In-stream advertising is a common ad format available from most mobile and social sites. Facebook and Twitter were pioneers of in-stream advertising, but it’s also offered on editorial properties owned by Yahoo and AOL. There are also several dedicated native ad exchanges for real-time programmatic buying, such as TripleLift, Nativo and Collective Roll.

A native ad unit created by Collective Roll

Sponsored content is also common among major publishers, especially pure-play web properties. Sites like BuzzFeed and Gawker are known for their in-house sponsored content teams and agency partnerships. Major legacy publishers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal also offer sponsored content opportunities.

GE-sponsored content on the Globe and Mail

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