native narrative

July 5, 2017

As you point out at the outset of your book, ‘native advertising’ is one of the least understood terms. How would you untangle its complexity?

In 2013, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) convened a native advertising task force to clarify what native advertising is, and to provide some guidelines on how native ads should be presented and disclosed. The IAB’s task force, which included more than 100 companies, did an excellent job of untangling the complexity for the term ‘native advertising’. It defined six distinct categories of native advertising, and published a Playbook that expands on each of those*. In the 19-page document, the IAB identified and defined six major types of native advertising:

  • In-feed ad units
  • Search ads
  • Recommendation widgets
  • Promoted listings
  • In-ad (IAB standard)
  • Custom/cannot be contained (these are native ads that do not fit in the other categories because they are designed specifically for the particular platform on which they appear)

The IAB Task Force provides a framework for evaluating whether something conforms to one of these six categories. And it provides examples from a variety of websites, including Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Instagram, Amazon, and others.

How is this latest trend different from content marketing and branded content?

Content marketing and branded content are both rapidly growing marketplaces. Content marketing is a marketing category superset that includes, as a subset, branded content. There are content marketing programs that include branded content and those that do not include it. All branded content programs are part of a content marketing strategy. According to the leadership team at Brandtale, a company that tracks the branded content sector, many premium publishers have developed branded content products to offer to their clients and this has been a growth area. Many industries are developing content marketing programs including finance, electronics and technology, alcohol brands, and auto brands. The finance industry is typically doing content marketing to provide advice or insights to potential customers. The alcohol, auto, and technology industries tend to create brand-building interactive experiences. During 2016, there was an increase in NGOs and other government and policy-focused brands doing more native advertising, which may have been spurred by the US presidential election.

Native advertising has blurred the lines between editorial and advertising…

Native advertising is information provided not by objective journalists but by savvy marketers; these ads ‘go native’ by blending in with their surrounding editorial content, thus blurring the traditional ‘church/state’ divide of editorial vs. advertising, which is what makes native advertising so effective. According to Harvard Business Review, “70% of people say they’d rather learn about products through content rather than through traditional advertising.”

But how native can it get and how impactful can it be vis-à-vis boosting brand awareness?

Branded content can indeed be both native to the publishing platform and also highly impactful. There are many excellent examples of this featured on the tracking site Not surprisingly, most people prefer to read ads that do not look like ads. Here is a summary of recommendations on how to improve native advertising:

  • Be very clear and transparent up front, and
  • Make sure the article does not focus only on one brand or product, which is too obviously a pitch for that brand or product. Instead, the article should offer useful, general information that might include references to a particular product but also describes products from companies other than the sponsoring company.

Good native advertising should be written so that readers or viewers or consumers get something out of the piece, other than a pitch for a product they could buy.

Does not a veiled pitch for a product annoy readers, given it occurs in the midst of interesting editorial content?

Yes, indeed. The best and most effective branded content is not a veiled pitch for a product but instead informs, educates, or entertains the reader. One publisher I interviewed for my book said, “I think consumers care about, is the content good? Have you disclosed your relationship with the advertiser? Is it useful and entertaining and good for me?” He emphasized that the publications he oversees have no interest in (or benefit from) misleading readers about their relationships with their advertisers. Their goal is not to sell overt product endorsements, nor do they deliver hard news, but he conceded that publications that are in those businesses would likely have a different set of concerns regarding their consumers. When he reads other publications as a consumer, if he comes across a piece of native advertising that he finds objectionable, he simply skips it. He believes this is what most consumers do: they have the power to either engage or not engage because they are more aware and savvier than many people give them credit for being: “We live in a highly commercial world, and [consumers] have so many choices . . . and a lot of opportunities to make decisions” about what they choose to read or view. He does concede that consumers “have a right to be concerned” if they feel they are “being hoodwinked” by content that purports to be unbiased but is actually a paid advertisement or endorsement of a product.

How robust a form of digital revenue is it compared to traditional forms of marketing?

Native advertising has become a robust form of digital revenue for publishers. Business Insider and eMarketer each do an excellent job of tracking the market’s development and the growth has been substantial. Margaret Boland, in the article ‘Native Ads Will Drive 74% of All Ad Revenue by 2021’ published by Business Insider/BIIntelligence in June 14, 2016, wrote: “By 2021, native display ad revenue in the United States, which includes native in-feed ads on publisher properties and social platforms, will make up 74 percent of total U.S. display ad revenue, up from a 56 percent share in 2016.”

You quote Luke Kintigh of Intel as saying, “It’s a fine line, because once you get into overtly … disclosing [that something is sponsored], it becomes less native.” So, how does one ensure a natural fit—a subtle, strategic blend with the surrounding content to ensure it stands out in the mind of the readers? Could you also cite an example?

Proper disclosure is critically important. When I interviewed Steve Piluso, an advertising executive who has held positions in several global media and digital marketing communications companies, he said, “The best native advertising and brand content has almost zero mention of the brand within the content. . . . It’s about understanding what I call brand permission. Where does the brand really have permission to play? Where does it naturally fit vs. where is it unwelcome?” Once again, this points to the importance of authenticity. Where does the brand really feel it would be a natural and welcome element; where does the brand really not belong, where does it feel weird? If people feel like they are being overtly sold to after the experience or feel they have not gotten something of value—something that makes them feel like the brand was a bit altruistic—then it turns people off. From the audience’s point of view, if it is near and dear to what they are thinking about at that moment and relevant to why they are there in the first place, they are going to pay attention to the ad. If they know it is marketing, but feel its relevance right away, then they are going to read it anyway. On the other hand, Piluso thinks a lot of ads are not really seen, which naturally defeats their purpose. Consumers are smart, and their ability to detect the real from the spurious has become really refined over the past few years. People are skipping over advertising—over stuff that they see no value in—at lightning speed. An example that I cite in my book was published by BuzzFeed and was sponsored by 3M’s Post-its: that article offered several tips on how to get better organized and offered a few tips for doing so using Post-it products. The article included disclosure that the article was sponsored by 3M’s Post-it brand.


Could you briefly talk about the need for transparency and proper disclosures?

I interviewed journalist Bill Densmore who agrees with the Federal Trade Commission enforcement policy guidelines; in particular, that transparency is the key word. Densmore does not believe that there is any First Amendment argument that says that we always have to know exactly who wrote something and what their economic interest in writing it is. Rather, he thinks the issue of transparency is not a legal issue as much as it is a business issue for publishers, who must consider to “what extent is your brand as a publisher and your ability to make money as a publisher going to be injured by the way in which you manage native advertising, by the way in which you lend the credibility of your brand to that of somebody doing a commercial speech?”. In Densmore’s view, publishers need to consider what they have to do to protect and not dilute their brand at the same time that they are assisting advertisers speak to the public. His conclusion: “It is really important that there be a clear distinction between the commercial speech and the speech that’s coming from the publishers themselves or some putatively public interest.”


how to strike a fine balance?

§  Proper disclosure

§  Create content that educates, informs, or entertains

§  Where feasible, include video in your storytelling process.


§  Inadequate or unclear disclosure

§  Content that is a veiled pitch for a product

§  Trying to publish content that is ‘off brand’ for the publishing platform.

How does the regulatory environment impinge on native advertising?

Our industry has an excellent trade organization called the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) that provides expert guidance on disclosure. Its guidance is informed, in the United States, by the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for our industry. As I shared earlier, the IAB published a Native Advertising Playbook. This included the following general recommendations for how native ads should be disclosed:

For paid native ad units, clarity and prominence of the disclosure is paramount. The disclosure must:

  • Use language that conveys that the advertising has been paid for, thus making it an advertising unit, even if that unit does not contain traditional promotional advertising messages.
  • Be large and visible enough for a consumer to notice it in the context of a given page and/or relative to the device that the ad is being viewed on.
  • Simply put: Regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising vs. what is publisher editorial content.

Proper disclosure and transparency is fundamental to the long-term effectiveness of native advertising and branded content.

Is native advertising the future of the advertising business?

Native advertising has indeed become a very important part of the future of the advertising business. Additionally, programmatic advertising is another example of an important part of the future of the advertising business. In 2014, I published a book about programmatic advertising, Targeted: How Technology is Revolutionizing Advertising and the Way Companies Reach Consumers. It described how computers were automating the buying and selling of digital advertising media by creating auction systems where a reader’s attention is bid for by advertisers in real-time. Programmatic advertising and real-time-bidding are fascinating topics and intersect with native advertising. Certain native advertising is bought and sold in an automated fashion in auctions. Automation and algorithms are the future of the advertising business.

What will be the role of big data in shaping the growth of native advertising?

The role of big data will be material in shaping the growth of native advertising and all advertising. There are many examples of industry initiatives where big data plays a critical role in native advertising today. Data about audience interests and habits is collected and used by marketers to inform their advertising campaigns. Today, when you visit a website on your smartphone most of us are unaware that while we are waiting for the page to render in our browser, an auction is taking place within milliseconds that alerts thousands of active advertising campaings that you are available to view an ad—and those thousands of companies use collected data about you to place a bid to win the opportunity to serve an ad to you in that moment on the web page you are awaiting. Data informs the bidding process and is critical to appraising the value of your attention to the marketer in that particular moment.

Another example of big data in advertising is in an area called ‘attribution’. When a marketing message is viewed by a prospect on her mobile phone, in a magazine, on an app, on a search engine, and elsewhere—how can the marketer know how much value was provided by the advertisement on the phone versus the magazine versus the app versus the search engine? Big data helps to inform by offering insights about the effectiveness of each platform for a given ad campaign for different types of prospects and customers. Data science has fast become a very important discipline in media and marketing.

As told to Anitha Moosath