The Good, Bad & Ugly Of IAB's Definition of Native

Banner ads failed to meet the needs of the sophisticated marketer.  So when native advertising came along -- a technology that brought the prospect of higher engagement without resorting to shenanigans -- marketers jumped at the opportunity. As with any new ecosystem, though, participants needed to understand the market. Committees were formed, standards were created, Lumascapes were made. Perhaps most importantly, the Interactive Advertising Bureau convened and established what it defined were the six types of native advertising.

After much discussion, the official native types were concluded to be: in-feed, paid search, recommendation widgets, promoted listings, IAB standard (with native elements), and “other.” By and large, this list is actually a well-considered and thoughtful compilation. It helpfully separates verticals of vendors and offerings. There are, however, a few noteworthy issues with the IAB definitions. If the IAB implements the following recommended changes, we think the list can be more helpful for marketers across the ecosystem.

Stifling the Innovation of Native

Our primary concern with the IAB categorization is its implication that native ought to fit within one of five predefined types, or else be cast into the miscellaneous bucket of “other.” The reality is that the vast majority of native dollars are spent on this last category (Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, etc.). The virtue of native is precisely that it is an ongoing evolution of innovative ways to advertise, not a fixed standard. The IAB’s list creates a harmful presumption that the five “non-other” items represent the totality of native advertising. There is a possibility that the IAB list will stifle innovation by misleading marketers and directing them to “known” types. This concern could be solved perhaps by a rebrand of “other” to “innovative” -- or the statement that is not an exhaustive list of the types of native ads, but merely an introductory guide to a few formats.

Branding v Direct Response

Different types of native advertising have completely different characteristics. Content recommendation widgets focus on traffic generation to publisher content, paid listings excel for direct response, and in-feed are a middle ground between branding and direct response, depending on the nature of the advertisement, publisher and placement. The IAB is, in effect, telling marketers that they can advertise on radio or Google, without providing much context about why and when they would choose one or the other.

On-site v Off-site  

Regardless of whether the native unit is in-feed or a recommendation widget, the decision of how a marketer would use native advertising is affected more by where the unit clicks. In-feed can either click to a piece hosted on that publisher’s site -- or to an advertiser’s landing page. To many, this distinction is more important than whether the content is in the feed or a widget at the bottom. This distinction is essential to the very nature of the campaign, the measurability of its impact, the type of assets required, and more.

Display as Native

Our most significant concern with the IAB’s list is that it counts display advertising as native. Of all the things that are and are not native, no rational market participant believes that banner ads are native ads -- no matter the “native elements” that may be present in the banner.

Including banners as native will produce two possible results: either the integrity of the IAB list is undermined, or industry members will believe that banners are actually native. The former is unfortunate because all the value of having a native guide is lost. The latter is even worse, because marketers may experiment with display as native, find display-level performance, and give up on the native ecosystem. The simple solution here is to simply drop display from the list of native advertising types.

5 comments about "The Good, Bad & Ugly Of IAB's Definition of Native".
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  1. Matt Cooper from Addroid, April 8, 2015 at 1:40 p.m.

    I wonder if it'll ever be possible to have a piece on Native that wasn't written by a CEO of a Native ad company. “Banner ads failed to meet the needs of the sophisticated marketer.” It's really hard to feel like this point of view is unbiased when that is the opening statement. 

  2. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, April 8, 2015 at 1:56 p.m.

    Eric, you are a good guy running a good company and I am painfully aware of the loss you suffered a year back when one of your employees died of an awful accident (I knew her).  So I hate to pick on you but Matt is right -- I wish you would lend more balanced insight to this market segment because you have the expertise to do so -- that said -- why don't we just call native -- "ads" -- nothing complicated about that and if the Native companies would just stop trying to make this more complicated you would all be better off -- for example YOUR company "makes/serves more engaging ads" - see no use of the word Native at all.

  3. Chris Westerkamp from Active Youth Network, April 8, 2015 at 2:06 p.m.

    There is an excellent application called PRQ that the Tampa Bay Times uses that can also be a Native News solution.  It's created by Creative Circle in Rhode Island. It generates revenue but doesn't cross the line of edirtorial.  


  4. peter minnium from na, April 8, 2015 at 6:54 p.m.

    Eric, thanks for this. Peter of the IAB here. With TripleLift a key member of the IAB Task Force that wrote the Playbook, you will recall that this was the result of 100+ industry expert companies (from Facebook to Twitter to Sharethrough to the NYT, among others) coming together to help the industry make sense of what was then a chaotic market.  All the major companies involved in promulgating native advertising developed these categories as a way of showing that "native" covers many multiple uses and types. I'm personally looking forward to the day when we talk about great digital advertising with no distinct categories! Thanks again for your support of the industry's efforts.


  5. Neal Richter from Rubicon Project, April 9, 2015 at 3:49 a.m.

    Eric.  Can you bring these issues up within the OpenRTB Native working group please?  We're all ears.  You bring up good points though I am not sure I'd agree with the statement that banner ads are counted as part of native.  The IAB native spec provides for fully componentized ads, yet of course OpenRTB's main part includes traditional banner ads.

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