December 17, 2014   |   Scott Dahlgren

Preston Kelly’s connections/media director Scott Dahlgren was recently published by PR News in its Book of Content Marketing Strategies & Tactics. He believes native advertising can play an important role in communicating with customers, but marketers shouldn’t abuse it. Native advertising needs to be authentic, integrated, and consumer-initiated. It requires relevant content customers need at that specific moment in time. Native advertising is at its worst when it tricks consumers and at its best when consumers actively participate and amplify the brand message. If we provide value to consumers, we will build trust and loyalty, resulting in higher engagement and a positive ROI.

Native advertising: Relevant Content and Consumer Value Required

It has been interesting to watch the explosion of native advertising discussion within the industry. It has taken on a life of its own with no clear boundaries and many players creating and experimenting with new forms of native ads. These players range from historically traditional publishers to technology companies.

Respected long-standing publishers like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Time Inc. are incorporating native ads into their online content – as well as new media companies like Buzzfeed, Slate and many others.

Many of the highest profile digital companies Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and Yahoo are well entrenched in native advertising – some with their revenue stream coming exclusively from native ads.

Technology companies like Sharethrough, Outbrain, and Adaptly have become experts in helping advertisers run ads within sponsored content. Native advertising has even made its way into programmatic buying through companies like Triplelift and Mopub, among others.

How do we get our arms around the ever-changing native advertising landscape and provide the industry a platform? Well, the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) recently created a task force to develop a framework around native advertising. The task force includes 100+ IAB member companies.

In December 2013, the IAB published The Native Advertising Playbook to provide “a framework for thinking about and discussing current native advertising options with the goal of eliminating marketplace confusion…”
The IAB says that native is in the eye of the beholder. In my eye, effective native advertising should be more tightly defined.

Native advertising is described by the IAB in their Native Advertising Playbook as “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.”

Sharethrough, a native advertising marketplace that exchanges content and experiences, states that the official definition of native advertising is “a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural user experience in which it is placed.”

Based on these definitions, there are two essential components of a native ad – form and function. Form means the ad matches the design – has the look and feel of the content it is placed within. Function means that the user experience with the ad is similar to the content in which it is placed.

The third essential component that is missing is: content. It should not be only about how it looks and works. The type of content is the key component in order to truly be native advertising. It needs to be relevant to what the consumer needs and wants, which in turn will provide them value. Running a sponsored listing ad on for debt consolidation is not effective.

As native advertising is currently executed, much of it is a way for advertisers to move away from standard online display ads by putting their message in a different place. Hiding an ad within publisher content is not native advertising in my book.

One reason for this new approach is due to the lack of display ad effectiveness. Initially online display ads were (supposedly) performing very well in terms of initiating clicks and driving traffic to advertisers’ websites. But, as we all know, this has changed. Publishers and advertisers then decided that online display ads were better at building brand awareness. However, at the end of the day, online display ads are still being evaluated based on clicks – mainly because it is easier to measure and often a more valuable metric. Other reasons for the decline of interest in display ads, beyond poor performance, are the issues the internet is having around transparency, click fraud, and banner blindness.

Native advertising should be more than moving ads from traditional online display ad locations and making them seem like natural content. If marketers say to their advertising partners, “Did you hear about native advertising? We should do some of that. Can you take that ad we have and make it native?” it will quickly destroy another opportunity to truly connect with consumers. Current and future customers will be irritated because they will feel duped by advertisers. It’s one thing to be part of the experience. It’s another to be relevant and provide value.

Search engine marketing (SEM) ads are the epitome of native advertising, partially because they have always been native and thus have become a natural part of the search experience. However, it is not only how these ads look and where they appear but that they are relevant to consumers. Relevancy includes having the right content, right voice, and right language.

The consumer is actively searching for information websites can provide. SEM ads are not interrupting the experience. Consumers want and need this information – or using another term – this content. However, advertisers need to set up their SEM campaigns appropriately by providing access to the content consumers seek. Search engines’ algorithms also do a good job of prioritizing and putting the most relevant content upfront.

Over the past few years, other digital companies like Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram are taking this same approach – only offering native-type ads to advertisers. Facebook started with less intrusive image and text ads appearing along the right-side of the page but have evolved to more native ads, including sponsored posts.

The IAB admits that their focus has been on defining native advertising and less effort put forth in determining effectiveness, even though it is a more important topic to cover. eMarketer has been publishing research around effectiveness and Sharethrough has developed a Native Advertising Leaderboard ( to house examples and showcase those resonating across the Web.

Effective native advertising needs to benefit both consumers and marketers. Within the industry most of the discussion has been about consumers. For them, effective native advertising is:

• Authentic, not an ad.
• Brand content, not publisher content.
• Integrated, not disruptive.
• A choice, not forced.
• Value-driven, not sales-driven.

Effective native advertising needs to provide value to marketers as well. There is an investment being made, and dollars need to maximize ROI. Extending the message, conversation, and relationship should be the goal.

For marketers, there is such a thing as too native. Jet Blue recently sponsored an article about Puerto Rico on Huffington Post with the only message being a “brought to you by Jet Blue” mention. If the only message was to let consumers know they fly to Puerto Rico, then it was effective. But, is there a missed opportunity to reinforce the brand message, Jet Blue’s values, or even their “You Above All.” tagline?

How about offering a downloadable brochure with additional information about Puerto Rico and JetBlue? Marketers need to get consumers down the funnel as far as possible with each touchpoint – each one leads to the next. And measure it along the way to find out what is working and where consumers are opting out.

This execution was recognized by Native Advertising Leaderboard as the second most popular native advertising execution for the week of June 2, 2014. The ranking is based on aggregated data pulled from social activity across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social channels. It could have been so much more.

In summary, to be most effective, native advertising needs to be authentic, integrated, and consumer-initiated. It’s at its best when consumers actively participate, share, and amplify the brand’s message. And it’s at its worst when it tricks consumers. Let’s make sure we respect consumers, maintain their trust, and create better experiences. And this should be done through native ads with content that is relevant and provides value. In the end, it will provide value for marketers, too.

Scott Dahlgren is Connections/Media Director at marketing firm Preston Kelly in Minneapolis. 


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