Media Planning & Buying

Native Advertising: But It Doesn’t Look Like an Ad

October 17, 2012

How many times have you seen the headline, “Display advertising is dead?” The truth is, display still works for brands – but not without overcoming some hurdles. Banner blindness remains a big challenge, and privacy concerns on the part of marketers are making it harder for brands to hyper-target an audience and take advantage of their full attention.

While display isn’t dying, it’s certainly evolving. One of the more talked about innovations as of late has been the rise of native advertising. Native advertising is a new technique advertisers are utilizing to break through the boundaries of standard IAB sizes and stand apart from digital clutter by serving the advertiser’s message within embedded content.

Buzzfeed native ads follow similar format and branding to other site content.

Publishers that allow this type of integration set aside editorial space specifically for advertisers, generally within the layout of non-sponsored content. The publisher accepts assets from the advertiser which are then built into content, matching the look and feel of the website. These types of media buys are embedded and flow somewhat seamlessly with editorial comment making them appear as articles, save for an indicator such as a specified coloration – on Buzzfeed all sponsored posts are yellow – and/or a caption that reads: Sponsored or Posted by (insert brand here).

At first glance, this seems comparable to the strategy behind advertorials. An advertorial is an ad that is created to blend in with the website and look more like content. The difference, however – and it’s a big one – is that even though the advertorial blends in, the intent is to take users away from the publisher’s site and send them to the brand’s designated landing page. Native advertising, on the other hand, keeps the user right where they are, while still accomplishing the media objective. In fact, brands get an even bigger canvas for advertising — masquerading as publisher content.

The Atlantic’s online edition has been highlighted recently for its native advertising technique. In fact, the publication even has a separate department dedicated to it, called Incite. The Atlantic thinks of this team as a “brand newsroom” made up of designers, custom content creators, strategists and social media specialists. The same way our 360i community and content teams give life and personality to our brands across the social space, the Incite team breathes editorial life into simple advertising assets.

So what does the native ad experience look like on As the user scrolls through the homepage, they see a sponsored unit that matches the layout of the most current news story icons. Upon clicking on the sponsored unit, the user is taken deeper into The Atlantic to an article about a successful eco-friendly company called Recycle Bank. And this is just the featured story – there is also an interactive map you can click through to view more economic progress stories in the United States, which also lives in The Atlantic of course.

So what does this content have to do with its sponsor, Goldman Sachs? Everything. Although the brand name is subtle, in logos and the fine print, the brand has worked with The Atlantic to stage this native ad campaign.

I recently met with a media sales rep from The Atlantic to discuss how this all comes together and what makes the process different from what typical media buyers like myself are used to. She explained that they start with the brand, and from there, build a story that will fit on-site. Instead of selling impressions, The Atlantic sells Content Impressions for their Embedded Content Units (ECUs). The ECUs rotate and change weekly to keep the content from becoming stale.

This seems like a lot of work for a six-week ad campaign, which made me wonder where native ads go to die. Turns out these ECUs were drinking from the same fountain as Tuck Everlasting. Native ads continue to live as content on the site indefinitely. Yet another perk that banner ads cannot deliver.

But it doesn’t stop there; Goldman Sachs and The Atlantic don’t solely rely on users visiting the homepage and finding the sponsored unit. The publication is using Twitter amplification to drive followers to the ECU. Given the social reach of most large publishers (The Atlantic has 180K followers on Twitter), this type of promotion has the power to drive even more eyeballs – and engagement.

This presents an interseting implication on the future of advertising. Not only is the ad landscape changing, but media teams are building out ad campaigns for their ad campaigns. They’re using advertising to drive to their advertising. 

360i recently ran a native advertising campaign for a large toy brand. Working across account, media and strategy, we developed a four-month custom program on CafeMom. Run of site media and homepage takeovers drove users to a custom tab with content and information for new moms.  Facebook and Twitter were also used to amplify the message and drive traffic on to the branded hub.

The program yielded high levels of traffic and engagement, exceeding publisher benchmarks. Moms openly endorsed the featured products as nearly 20MM impressions were tracked.

Native is certainly an exciting new opportunity in the display space, but it doesn’t come without challenges.  For one, the size of the audience viewing these types of advertisements is limited to the specific website where they are built to run. Put simply, branded content is specific to one site only. This means that significant investment (time and money) goes into a single placement, that may not produce strong enough ROI. Traditional banners are created one time and can be used across a variety of different websites, making optimization easier and allowing for greater scalability.

The online audience, much like the offline audience, will continue to find ways to block out advertising.  But what if the advertising is helpful, insightful or relevant to the content they are already consuming?  Native ads are essentially being endorsed by a content provider that readers trust and rely on for information. Not only does this strategy blur the lines between advertising and content, but it makes digital media more interesting and integrated.

Marketers will need to continue to do what they’ve been doing all along: testing a combination of strategies to create a balanced media mix. While native advertising is unique to specific properties, it should be considered as a smaller component of a bigger media plan with larger reach.