Here’s How to Do Native Ads Right

March 11, 2024
advertisement on internet, online ads, digital marketing concept
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    This form of display advertising can be a tricky channel to implement. Here’s our advice.

    In 2024, US advertisers are expected to spend $168 billion on programmatic display advertising. Of those display ad dollars, nearly 60% are expected to go to native advertising.

    Because it makes up over half of overall display ad spending, native advertising is important to get right. Unlike regular display ads, native ads don’t exist at the margins of online content. They are the content. 

    Blending in with the feel and form of the website, social media channel, video, or podcast in which they appear, native ads still need to somehow stand out from the rest of the content around them to register as ads and create brand awareness, yet provide value to the viewer akin to the quality of the media format they’re imitating. In other words, they need to exist as content in their own right, yet not confuse the user about their paid-for, ad status.

    So the question then is: How do you get this balance right?

    Native advertising, in a nutshell

    Let’s further explain the difference between regular display ads and native ads. Native ads reflect the “form, feel, and function” of the media format in which they appear. 

    Display ads are about as obvious as ads can get. Think of banner and sidebar ads–they aim to draw visual attention and therefore increase brand recognition, but typically don’t boast high click-through rates. They’re one aspect of a smart omnichannel campaign typically meant to draw high-funnel awareness. 

    Native advertising, however, somewhat blends in with the surrounding content where it’s displayed, but is clearly demarcated as “sponsored content” or “branded” or simply, “Ad.” In fact, the FTC requires that native ads be marked in this way, so users aren’t deceived as to what’s an ad and what isn’t.

    On that note–nobody is fooled by a native ad. Though it’s meant to be a seamless combination with the content already present, users are still typically aware of what’s an ad and what isn’t. However, they can still have a compelling effect on consumer behavior. That is, as long as the ads are obvious, the content of them is valuable, and no attempt is made to deceive the viewer at the expense of their trust (If you try, you risk the FTC’s wrath, or just as bad, the alienation of your potential consumers, growing distrust between your audience and the publisher who agreed to run your ad, and of course, that publisher’s disappointment in you. Tsk tsk.). 

    Native advertising also differs from its popular cousin, content marketing. While native advertising is paid content placed within another media source, content marketing is valuable content a brand makes and distributes themselves, on their own website or social media accounts, in order to attract and retain an audience. 

    Common types of native advertising

    Say, for example, you’re scrolling through Instagram, and you come across a sponsored post in your feed. Or you’re reading your favorite news website and you see a suggestion in the sidebar for a “sponsored” article. 

    If you haven’t guessed already, these are examples of native ads.

    Native ads include sponsored or promoted content, content recommendation widgets (like chumbox advertisements that you see at the bottoms of articles with clickbait headlines), social media in-feed units (like on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter), and video ads within a feed or article.

    Here’s a further breakdown of native advertising types to truly understand the breadth of the medium: 

    • Search engine ads: this is the paid content at the top of Google, Yahoo, or Bing searches, typically appearing at the top, with a “Sponsored” tag on them.
    • In-feed ads: these ads appear on social media while you scroll–promoted tweets (on X, formerly Twitter), sponsored posts on Facebook or Instagram, and videos on TikTok.
    • Newsletter ads: These are the “sponsored content” articles on websites that resemble the content already there.
    • Content recommendation widgets: These are the “Recommended for You” articles that appear at the bottoms of articles. Usually run by a one of the giants in the field like Taboola or Outbrain, these can run afoul of best native advertising practices by pushing users to content farms or decreasing trust in a media source. To circumvent these problems, widget creators are striving to improve their algorithms to create relevant, spam-free content.
    • Audio and Video ads: Native audio ads can be the host-read ads that appear on podcasts, influencer advertising via video that appears on TikTok or Instagram, and sponsored partnerships between YouTubers and companies. These native video ads are not as likely to be skipped, since they’re a part of the video itself. And according to Insider Intelligence, native video ad spending will increase to $28.3 billion this year–of total video ad spend, native video makes up above 40%.

    Why native advertising?

    While regular display ads are great at generating recognition for your brand (since they stand out and convey their ad-ness), they don’t drive very high click-through rates. In 2020, data collected by Google showed that the average CTR for digital display ads was 0.1%–and that’s not accounting for bot clicks. Though they might increase brand recognition, they don’t maintain eyes on the ad and don’t drive quite as much engagement as native advertising.

    On average, native ads tend to generate higher CTRs than regular display ads. In a 2015 study from Sharethrough and IPG Media that used eye-tracking technology, users were documented to look at native ads 53% more frequently than display ads. They also generated “18% higher lift in purchase intent.” Additionally, 32% of the respondents said that a native ad “is an ad I would share with a friend or family member,” compared to just 19% for display.

    But because of the nature of native advertising, not everybody does it right. Native advertising content needs to be valuable and useful to viewers and contain valuable, relevant content–on top of generating brand awareness and steering clear of deceptive tactics. 

    Getting native advertising wrong

    There are plenty of ways to do native advertising the wrong way. Excessive chumbox advertising, trying to hide the fact that content is paid for or otherwise disguising ad status or partnerships, and deceptive ad practices can lower brand credibility and hurt the medium you’re advertising on.

    Take the deceitful native advertisements recently uncovered on X, formerly Twitter, as an example. Users noticed odd advertisements appearing in their feed–ones that showed up sans disclosure or any “this is an ad” labeling. It appeared like organic content, right in a user’s feed (like native advertising does), but users had no way to click on the ad to see who the brand was (since they had no display name or handle attached), no way to block the poster, and the posts did not provide any quality content, instead utilizing clickbaity headlines and photos. Companies are banned from using deceptive ad practices, so not only did X ignore FTC regulations, but it disappointed and irked users. 

    Or take excessive chumbox advertising. The giants in this space–like Taboola or Outbrain–provide publishers with content recommendation widgets that contain pictures and links to other sites and publications, sometimes with clickbait headlines (for example: “you WON’T BELIEVE this one trick doctors hate”). Some of these links send users to content farms loaded with ads, hoping they will click one to drive revenue. While these widgets can generate profit at no cost to the publisher, no user is particularly pleased–or easily duped–by content farm ads. If these recommendation widgets do not provide quality and relevant content to a user, they run the risk of ruining viewer trust. And in an age reliant on first- and zero- party prospect data, it’s a big risk to take. As chumbox advertising gradually improves to be more relevant and include quality content, it may become a useful piece of native advertising–but strides need to be taken to ensure advertisers can have confidence in the medium.

    Getting native advertising right

    There are a few pointers to consider when implementing a native ad. Does it differentiate itself as an ad? Does it provide value? Is it helpful to viewers of the media format? Is it relevant to the publishing media, and the interests of its readers?

    Beyond these broad questions, here are some aspects of native ads to consider:

    Focus on relevant, valuable, content

    Native advertising should match the quality and feel of the media format it’s published on. Aligning both with the site direction and the audience interests makes for relevant content. And providing value–making content the target audience would be interested in, regardless if it was an ad or not–is just as important. Storytelling, for example, is a good way to draw in a reader and ensure an effective native ad. 

    Use social media to your advantage

    Native display ads on social media take the majority of the pie when it comes to ad spending. It’s estimated that $68.17 billion will be spent on native display ads on social media in 2023. In comparison, less than $30 billion will be spent on nonsocial native display ads. 

    If you understand these trends in the native advertising space, you can ensure you put your ad dollars where they’ll count most. 

    Look toward video

    A growing piece of the pie when it comes to native advertising, video advertising makes for great native ads. That’s because you can pack entertainment value right into your ad, making it easy to blend into surrounding content.

    Excelling at native advertising

    In order to be good at native advertising, you need to keep in mind that you must distinguish your ad as an ad and further, maintain the same quality as the media format you’re occupying space on.

    That’s how you excel at native advertising–the channel that’ll reach a value of $400 billion worldwide by 2025, and on which US advertisers will have spent $97.46 billion on this year.

    In an age of first-party prospect data and loyalty, trust is key to pleasing audiences and establishing credibility in your brand.

    So do things right–build trust, provide valuable content, and win your viewers over.