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.

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.
Increased EngagementNative ads are more likely to be watched, read, and listened to by consumers due to their seamless integration with content.
Enhanced Credibility and TrustThe blending effect of native ads with editorial content increases the likelihood of consumers trusting the content and, by extension, the brand.
Improved Click-Through Rates (CTR)Native ads tend to achieve higher click-through rates, driving more traffic to the advertiser's content or website.
Overcoming Ad AvoidanceConsumers often avoid traditional ads, but native ads are less intrusive and more appealing, reducing ad avoidance.
Effective StorytellingNative advertising allows for storytelling that can engage and resonate with consumers on a deeper level, conveying brand messages effectively.
Seamless IntegrationNative ads seamlessly blend into the surrounding content, making them less disruptive and more likely to be perceived as part of the user experience.
Enhanced Brand PerceptionWhen native ads align with the values and context of the publisher, they can positively impact how consumers perceive the brand.
Positive Impact on Consumer BehaviorNative ads can influence consumer behavior, driving actions such as making a purchase, signing up, or sharing content.
Targeted Reach and RelevanceNative ads can be precisely targeted to reach specific audiences, ensuring that the content remains relevant to the viewer's interests and needs.
Potential for ViralityCompelling native content has the potential to go viral, reaching a wider audience and increasing brand visibility and recognition.

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.

The Ethics of Native Advertising: Navigating the Gray Area

While native advertising has gained prominence in the marketing world for its ability to seamlessly blend in with content, it has also stirred debates about its ethical implications. The central question revolves around transparency and consumer trust.

Clear Labeling is Key: Advocates argue that native advertising is ethical as long as it’s transparently labeled. Most platforms use terms like “Promoted” or “Sponsored” to distinguish native ads from regular content. However, critics point out that these labels can be easily overlooked or even become inconspicuous over time.

Consumer Responsibility: Consumers also play a crucial role in this ethical dilemma. It’s essential for them to differentiate between editorial content and native ads actively. Being aware of the “Promoted” or “Sponsored” labels can help consumers make informed choices.

The Publisher’s Role: Publishers bear the responsibility of clearly delineating native advertising from editorial content. Failing to do so erodes the trust consumers have in their platform, potentially damaging their reputation.

Content Marketing vs. Native Advertising: Spotting the Differences

Another point of confusion in the marketing landscape is distinguishing between content marketing and native advertising. While both involve using content to promote a brand, they differ significantly:

Content Marketing: In content marketing, brands create or curate content for their platforms, such as blogs or social media, without paying for placement. It’s about providing value to the audience through informative, engaging content.

Native Advertising: Native advertising, on the other hand, is “pay to play” .Brands pay for their content to appear alongside editorial content on third-party platforms, with clear labels like “Promoted” or “Sponsored”.

Measuring the Effectiveness of Native Advertising

An essential aspect of any advertising strategy is evaluating its impact and effectiveness. Native advertising is no exception. Here, we delve into the methods and metrics used to measure the success of native advertising campaigns:

1. Click-Through Rate (CTR): CTR measures the percentage of users who clicked on your native ad after seeing it. A higher CTR often indicates that your ad is resonating with your target audience.

2. Conversion Rate: The conversion rate calculates the percentage of users who completed a specific action after clicking on your ad, such as making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter. This metric gauges the ad’s ability to drive desired outcomes.

3. Engagement Metrics: Metrics like time spent on the content, scroll depth, and social shares reveal how engaged users are with your native ad. High engagement suggests that your content is compelling and resonates with the audience.

4. Brand Lift and Awareness: Native advertising can enhance brand awareness and lift. Surveys and studies can measure changes in brand perception, awareness, and purchase intent among users exposed to native ads.

5. Return on Investment (ROI): Calculating the ROI of native advertising involves assessing the revenue generated compared to the cost of the campaign. Positive ROI indicates that the campaign is profitable.

6. Native Advertising Platforms’ Analytics: Most native advertising platforms provide detailed analytics, including impressions, clicks, and engagement data. These insights help marketers refine their strategies.

7. A/B Testing: Conducting A/B tests with different ad variations allows marketers to identify which elements resonate most with their audience. This iterative process can lead to more effective campaigns.

8. Customer Surveys and Feedback: Gathering direct feedback from customers who interacted with native ads can provide valuable qualitative insights into their effectiveness and areas for improvement.

9. Content Performance Metrics: Analyzing content-related metrics like bounce rate, pages per session, and scroll depth can help assess how well the ad’s content engages users and keeps them on the page.

10. Sales and Revenue Metrics: For e-commerce brands, tracking sales and revenue generated from users who interacted with native ads is a direct measure of success.

11. Quality Score: Some platforms, like Google Ads, assign a Quality Score to ads based on relevance and performance. Higher scores often result in lower costs and better placement.

Click-Through Rate (CTR)Measures the percentage of users who clicked on the native ad after seeing it, indicating audience engagement.
Conversion RateCalculates the percentage of users who completed a specific action after clicking on the ad, such as making a purchase, indicating the ad's impact on desired outcomes.
Engagement MetricsIncludes time spent on content, scroll depth, and social shares, providing insights into user engagement and content resonance.
Brand Lift and AwarenessMeasures changes in brand perception, awareness, and purchase intent among users exposed to native ads through surveys and studies.
Return on Investment (ROI)Assesses campaign profitability by comparing generated revenue to campaign costs. Positive ROI indicates financial success.
Native Advertising Platforms' AnalyticsProvides impressions, clicks, and engagement data, aiding in campaign optimization and performance evaluation.
A/B TestingInvolves testing different ad variations to identify elements that resonate most with the audience, leading to more effective campaigns.
Customer Surveys and FeedbackGathers qualitative insights from customers who interacted with native ads, helping identify effectiveness and areas for improvement.
Content Performance MetricsAnalyzes metrics like bounce rate, pages per session, and scroll depth to assess user engagement with the ad's content and its ability to retain users.
Sales and Revenue MetricsTracks sales and revenue generated from users who interacted with native ads, directly measuring the impact on business outcomes.
Quality ScorePlatforms like Google Ads assign a Quality Score based on relevance and performance, influencing costs and placement. Higher scores indicate better ad performance.


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 SEO manager at Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 11 years. He carries over 24 years of experience in driving targeted online traffic using content and search engine optimization (SEO). He specializes in data research and content creation designed to attract visitors.