What’s All the Hype About Native Ads, Anyway? Looking Beyond the Buzzword.


Image copyright Timur Djafarov

Late last year, yet another industry buzzword emerged: “Native Advertising.” The term has received a lot of media attention and excitement from brands, rich-media companies and publishers alike, and after cutting through the hype, one question still remains: What does it actually mean?

At the basic level, native ads are paid experiences that are complementary to the platform and content in which they are presented. While examples include Sponsored Stories on Facebook or Sponsored Tweets on Twitter, this doesn’t quite do the term justice. Truly native advertising takes things one step further, referring to seamlessly integrating brands into the medium, so much so that the consumer gets more value from the advertising as part of a greater content consumption experience. As Peter Kafka wrote in a recent article, native advertising is about “selling stuff that people want to look at.” This is key to get people to start thinking about brands, without making the ad blatant or disruptive. This can happen on all media from broadcast to digital, print to mobile, using technologies and platforms that engage with native in mind.

With months of speculation, commentary and controversy behind us, it is time to set the record straight. We need not only to reach a consensus about what native actually means, but also strive to help the advertising industry harness the power of this concept to develop compelling experiences that are organic to the content.

If I had it my way, we would only refer to an ad as native if it includes the following:

  • The ad is a holistic brand experience specific to the content or medium.
  • It is seamless and non-invasive.
  • The content of the ad is contextually relevant.
  • It is flexible but adheres to the characteristics of the device or screen.

Essentially unexplored, mobile is the next great ad frontier and is where native advertising starts getting really exciting. While most mediums have had years to develop the art of advertising, mobile is still in its infancy. With challenges including small screen size and device/platform fragmentation, there are certainly some hurdles to overcome in order to move beyond the banner and engage with consumers. But mobile devices have quickly become a lifeline for people everywhere — and tapping into the true power of native advertising will be essential to the success of brands from this point on.

There are huge opportunities on mobile to harness that consumer lifeline. Many smartphone users store their lives in their phones. From calendars to social profiles, contacts to photos, brands have the opportunity to add value in the user’s life in real-time through these features, that consumers are actually interacting with. And native ads provide the best platform to leverage these capabilities.

Some of this can be accomplished by pure utility: Creating a branded recipe as part of a cooking app, and enabling consumers to save an ingredient shopping list on their home screen or to easily locate a retailer. But native advertising can also be used to extend the consumer’s focused interest onto a brand.

As an example of a company that has done native advertising justice, Chevrolet recently partnered with Motor Trend to run an extensive, six-part article series — featuring the tech innovation that Chevy is bringing to its vehicles — and was able to place it alongside the Motor Trend news and features that readers are looking for with the Motor Trend app. Chevy was able to offer readers the ability to pin that content/ad experience to their mobile home screens so that they could review it later. By showcasing a seamless app-within-an-app experience and offering a mobile ad that doesn’t bounce you out of the app, as an industry, we just might be able to create advertisements that engage consumers instead of distract them. As a business model, the native environment will also lead to greater engagement and result in more conversions because consumers are impressed and influenced by a truly integrated experience.

Personally, I prefer the term “organic” to “native” because what brands need is a way to offer advertising that is ingrained and complementary to the content consumption experience, and is novel and sophisticated. The mobile platform is ideal for creating a seamless and organic ad experience. When you’re on a desktop computer, you can be doing many other things at once such as looking at various places on a homepage or website. Mobile is different. If you click on a mobile video or engage with a brand experience, you are essentially locked into that choice. Since the eyeballs are there, why not capitalize on that by providing a deeper, more immersive experience for the user. Instead of spending time trying to divert attention (like with most forms of digital advertising), since they already have it with mobile, brands should leverage it to their advantage by going deeper.

Lastly, as an industry, we need to focus more on the overall user experience and less on the ad units themselves because the native technologies have advanced the conversation beyond the typical 320×50 mobile banner ad. The key is to engage the user with depth and to provide multiple, comfortable ways for the user to engage with the brand, not just with a rich media banner that goes away after a few seconds. We have found that if you take this approach, the user will indeed engage deeply, even with long-form content like videos.

Whether you prefer the term “native ads” or “organic brand experiences,” the concept is really about providing consumers with meaningful content when and where they want to consume it.

Ken Willner is the CEO of Zumobi and has been actively involved in the development of mobile as a media platform since 2002.

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