What is Native Advertising?

Native advertising

If you were to ask for the most straightforward answer to the question, “What is native advertising?” it would be:

“Native advertising is a form of online advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears.”

Of course, straightforward isn’t always clear, at least not without some context, so before we get into the why let’s take a look at some native advertising examples.

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Native Advertising Examples

Because the purpose of native advertising is to blend into the form and function of the content around it, it can be tricky to spot. Here are some examples of native advertising caught in “the wild”:

Native Search Engine Ads

As you can see, search engine ads are designed to look just like organic search engine results:

What is Native Advertising

Native Twitter Ads

Another form of native advertising is Twitter’s promoted tweets. As you can see below, apart from the “Promoted by” text, a promoted tweet looks just like any other.

What is Native Advertising

Native News Feed Ads

These are promoted posts that show up next to real news in a publisher’s news feed like the one you can see here:

What is Native Advertising

Photo courtesy of BuzzFeed and The Onion

In the language of native advertising, these “news” stories can be “Sponsored” or “Branded”:

  • Sponsored – a brand pays a publisher to create the content.
  • Branded – the brand creates the content and the publisher well, publishes it.

Native Advertorial Ads

Advertorials look like regular editorial content but are actually created to advertise a brand. These ads are popular both online and off and have been around for a long time. Here’s one popular example: Guinness’ “Guide to” series:

What is Native Advertising

Native Video Ads

Native advertising is not limited to text and images – videos have been increasingly popular as well. The “First & Long” series produced by Nike and published on SBNation is one such example.

What is Native Advertising

Photo courtesy of SBNation

Goals of Native Advertising

Native ads have two primary goals:

  1. Positioning a brand image in the consumer’s mind as the “First & Long” video series above positioned Nike; or
  2. Driving consumers to take one particular action as in the case of the search engine ads above.

What are the Benefits of Native Advertising?

In our advertising-saturated world, consumers have become very savvy. They recognize advertising from a mile away and, except for Super Bowl ads, avoid it like the plague.

Additionally, consumers tend to view the information imparted within ads skeptically. Since someone is paying to have something printed, said, or acted, who knows how much fact checking went into the project before it went live.

Native ads were developed to combat both of these issues. By looking like the content around it, native advertising camouflages the marketing messages so that they look and sound like editorial content.

This blending effect makes it more likely that native ads will be perceived as editorial content leading to two powerful benefits:

  • A higher likelihood that the ads will be watched, read and listened to; and
  • A greater chance that the trust that consumers have in the publisher will “rub-off” on the brand.

Doesn’t That Make Native Advertising Sort of Sketchy?

One of the often-heard criticisms of native advertising is that it was designed to trick consumers into consuming ads and trusting brands by making said ads look like editorial content.

This ethical discussion continues to rage.

The “native advertising is OK” side of the debate goes like this:

  • Native advertising is clearly labeled as such using words like “Promoted” and “Sponsored”.
  • Native advertising is a win-win-win solution: publishers get revenue, brands get exposure and consumer get educational, entertaining or inspirational content.

The “native advertising is not OK” side of the debate, in turn, argues that:

  • Labels such as “Promoted” and “Sponsored” are easily overlooked and seem to get smaller all the time leading to at best consumer confusion and at worst consumer deception.
  • Native advertising is not a win for publishers because “selling out” erodes the trust that consumers have in their editorial content.

Author Aside

Perhaps the key to settling this debate lies in an experience I had early in my career. As a young public relations account executive, I attended a “Meet the Press” event in New York City. Editorial staff from many the major publications were present, each of who took turns telling us how to best pitch our client’s stories to their publication.

At the tail end, a staffer from one of the more radical publications treated us to a rant in which he accused public relations folks of working against the greater good as only those who could afford our services had their stories pitched to the media. He went on to contend that it wasn’t our entire fault, however, the media who printed our news releases with no changes or even fact checks were just as culpable.

Ranting aside, I did take one important point away from his talk and that point applies to native advertising: each party needs to be responsible.

  • Publishers need to make it clear as day that native ads are paid-for advertisement placements so that consumers are not confused.
  • Brands need to provide useful information within their native ads while also making it clear that there’s a commercial goal in play.
  • Consumers need to pay attention to what content is editorial and what content is native advertising. If the rules are being followed, native advertising is always marked as such so look for the “Promoted” or “Sponsored” labels.

Is Content Marketing Native Advertising?

You may be thinking that native advertising looks an awful lot like content marketing.

Welcome to the second great native advertising debate.

Both content marketing and native advertising use useful content to position a brand and drive action. However, that’s where the similarity ends.

The best argument for separating the two was made in a Content Marketing Institute post, within which Joe Pulizzi noted:

“I hate to bring out the obvious, but native advertising is ‘pay to play.’ If a brand or individual did not pay for the spot, it’s not native advertising. Although brands may choose to promote their content by paying for visibility, content marketing is not advertising. You do not pay to create or curate content to your own platform. If you are, you should stop that right now.”

Enough said.


Native advertising is hot and growing hotter. As a marketing tactic, it provides two powerful benefits:

  • A higher likelihood that the ads will be watched, read and listened to; and
  • A greater chance that the trust that consumers have in the publisher will “rub-off” on the brand.

That said, native advertising could have a dark side. If an ad is not clearly marked as such, consumers can be confused and even deceived into believing that the native ad’s content is an objective and trustworthy as regular editorial content.

In the end, if publishers and brands make it their responsibility to draw a line clearly between editorial and native ad content and consumers make it their responsibility to look for and be aware of that line, native advertising is a win-win-win for all three parties.

iPad/Facebook Ad Photo via Shutterstock

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Matt Mansfield Matt Mansfield is the Tech Editor and SEO Manager at Small Business Trends where he is responsible for directing and writing many of the site’s product reviews, technology how-to’s, and lists of small business resources as well as increasing the reach of our content.

12 Reactions
  1. I’ve seen this in galleries where paid options are blended in the free options. This way, the ad gets more clicks. But it will not really get people to buy unless they truly need what they have clicked on.

  2. I think native advertising is extremely powerful – however they require a pretty enticing headline to work. It also requires a lot of work to intertwine the ad with engaging and relevant content after the visitor hits your site, which can be extremely time consuming for small businesses that don’t have a team to create a whole content marketing campaign.

    And yeah, I feel that Native ads are very sketchy, especially since sometimes it’s extremely difficult to even see the ‘promoted’ text, and it’s sometimes mixed in with actual posts from the same site (seen this on a variety of blogs).

  3. Matt,

    So where goes the line between an ad and content material?

    • Martin,

      I think that line is getting thinner every year. The key to keeping the line in place at all is for each party, publishers, brands and consumers, to shoulder the appropriate level of responsibility. Without that, the line between ad and content disappears.


  4. Native advertising is obviously were things are going in order for journalist to make cash nowadays. However, it’s only a matter of time before strict regulation is put in places, killing a fair chunk of any potential income stream editorial is left with today.

  5. I call them tabloid distractions. They are shiny objects that get viewers’ attention but so many people read the tabloids in the grocery lines and then put them down when it’s their turn at the cashier

  6. Hi Matt,
    I find this article really clear and so easy to understand!
    In fact, I would like to reference it on one of our courses.
    I work for the IDM (http://theidm.com/) and we are currently updating one of our Qualifications – the Professional Diploma in Digital Marketing.
    I would like to reference to this article but wanted your express permissions to do this as the course sits behind an authenticated log in, therefore we require the author to be aware that we are using their content.

    Let me know if this is ok and if you would like more details don’t hesitate to ask!

  7. This is a very smart idea! Whoever came up with it? LOL! I know. My question is, since I cannot afford to use these ads to serve up MY ads, how can I get other advertiser’s native ads on my site and get paid a commission?

    I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before these ads become restricted or over censored, but in the meantime, can I take advantage and make some money 🙂

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