With so many formats falling under the umbrella native advertising, it’s hard to understand what exactly it is. The term is hot, causing its overuse, just like the terms social media, big data, and gamification. Every site and ad campaign seems to employ some aspect of social media or big data, even if it’s after the fact. And every advertising format wants to be native.
According to Wikipedia, native advertising “is a form of online advertising that matches the form and function of the platform on which it appears.” The key word here is function. There are many types of advertising that match form. In-feed products, where a sponsored story appears in the feed of the publisher’s other stories, matches the form of the other ad units, but fail in the function test. If I’m on my favorite publisher’s site expecting to read articles written by my favorite writers by clicking on an in-feed sponsored story, I’m likely to be disappointed, since the selected story links to an outside site written by other writers.
The related content widgets also match form, but for similar reasons to in-feed, they fail the function test. How about New York Times sponsored content? A New York Times sponsored story looks like other New York Times articles and is written by the staff in a way that mimics their editorial department, so, yes, New York Times sponsored content passes the native advertising test!
In fact, if you take all of the forms of native advertising out there, you end up with very little “native advertising.” Facebook-sponsored stories look and feel like a Facebook post and are is written by someone who would actually write on Facebook, whether that be a brand or individual. Check. Twitter-sponsored tweets and publisher’s sponsored stories also fall into this category. While Google Ad Words look like actual Google search results, the text is marketing copy and not the highlighted words you are looking for; rather, its two lines of text are what an advertiser wrote to entice a click-through based on the intent of the search terms.
With these examples, another characteristic of native advertising alongside fitting the form and function of the platform is that it (currently) is not portable, and thus, somewhat hard to scale. A tweet isn’t a status update, isn’t Ad Words copy and wouldn’t be on a blog post.
Why can’t we all be part of the native advertising bandwagon? Why does it matter what we call our advertising format? We need to differentiate because years ago at the advent of the Internet, marketers divided channels into traditional advertising and online or digital advertising.” The digital format consisted of banner advertising and text based advertisements; success was measured in the click-through.
Once everything was labeled digital, there was no going back -- everything became measured by click-through rates. Banner ads, which are the Internet equivalent of billboards, became measured by click-through rates, and have fared abysmally. If traditional billboards were measured in “actions,” how would they have performed? How many numbers have you called, websites visited, or apps downloaded after seeing a billboard on the highway? Hopefully none if you are driving, but that’s how unlikely a click-through might occur on a banner. (Actually, according to Solve Media, you are more likely to survive a plane crash!)
The "native" has to emanate from the core of your advertising, not just be an afterthought, in the way that companies try to layer "social media" on top of their same old way of doing things. We don’t want everything to become labeled as native because metrics will become bucketed and true successes and effectiveness will become masked. Without some kind of differentiation, “native” formats will default back to metrics that might not make sense, like those aforementioned billboards. Thus, we should remember that not all eyeballs are created equal, not all impressions are the same -- and not all things labeled native are really native.