What is native advertising?

How to Spot Native Ads Like a Pro

by | Apr 28, 2015

Just over fifty years ago, Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court attempted to define pornography. After much research and debate, he eventually came to the simple conclusion that “I know it when I see it.

It would become one of the most famous phrases ever uttered in U.S. judiciary history. Not merely for the controversial subject matter, but more so for its implication concerning the First Amendment of free speech.

Moving forward, what was to be deemed obscene and thus unconstitutional was largely left to the whims of whoever might be presiding at that time.

In other words, in regards to obscenity, free speech was governed by ambiguity.

In the world of digital advertising, native ads are governed by a very similar – yet just as unhelpful – version of ambiguity.

What Is Native Advertising?

Of all the types of digital ads, native advertising just might cause the most confusion.

Not because the concept behind native advertising is overly complex. It isn’t. In fact, it’s rather simple. According to the IAB, native ads are:

“…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.”

From a practical perspective, that makes sense.

[tweetable]Basically, native advertisements are ads that don’t look like ads.[/tweetable]

Rather, they look like organic pieces of content that fit seamlessly into the user’s experience.

When a user opens a webpage or loads an app, they generally aren’t looking to be hit across the face with advertisements. Native advertising takes advantage of this by presenting ads in a way that isn’t obstructive, annoying or (often times) even noticeable.

So Why the Confusion?

If this commonly agreed upon definition makes sense, why can’t the industry seem to settle on a practical definition, one that lays down the specific parameters needed to decide whether a certain ad unit is native or not?

The trouble lies in native advertising’s ambiguity. Think about the last section of the IAB’s definition: “the viewer simply feels that they belong.”

Could that be any more subjective?

Consider this potential experiment: gather 100 people in a room, show them a native ad, and see if they all feel that it belongs.

More likely than not, some of those people are going to disagree. And that’s the whole point. Human beings feel subjectively.

What one advertiser might declare native, another cries obvious, and so on. It’s a never-ending back and forth.

To steal a different phrase from the IAB:

[tweetable]”Native is in the eye of the beholder.”[/tweetable]

So How Should We Discuss Native?

Let’s try to move away from Justice Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” into something more constructive.

To do this, it’s best to look at what these advertisements can accomplish, rather than conceptual abstractions concerning what a native ad is or isn’t.

By their very nature, native advertisements act as content that a user expects to encounter.

Popular examples of this include Facebook or Twitter; a sponsored story or promoted tweet integrates with the user’s experience from both a design and placement standpoint and thus will more likely be viewed positively and, most importantly, have a higher chance of being interacted with or shared.

Native ads not only look the part, but play the part as well. A promoted tweet by, say, TripAdvisor will behave in the exact same way as any other tweets a user reads. It can be favorited, retweeted, and replied back to.

This works to give publishers more control over their editorial content while simultaneously presents advertisers with a more effective and sharable ad.

Proof Native Ads “Work”

Overwhelmingly, the numbers back it up. Sharethrough, in partnership with IPG Media Lab, completed a study with compelling results. Of those, the most notable were:

  • Consumers looked at native ads 53% more frequently than display ads.
  • 25% more consumers were measured to look at in-feed native ad placements (the most common editorial native ad format) than display ad units.
  • Native ads registered 18% higher lift in purchase intent and 9% lift for brand affinity responses than banner ads
  • 32% of respondents said the native ad “is an ad I would share with a friend of family member” versus just 19% for display ads.

The Bottom Line

Native advertisements produce incredibly high levels of engagement. To get bogged down in the semantics over definition would do a disservice to native’s capabilities.

Just remember, like porn: you’ll know it when you see it. And when you see it, take note. It could very well be the future of digital advertising.