Jason Wincuinas
Jul 28, 2014

How to stop worrying and love native ads

The 'bogeyman' haunting native advertising is the idea that the tactic is a blurry, deceptive trick that dupes readers or viewers into consuming something they don’t want to. The flip side is, it’s simply more effective advertising that gives people what they want. Regardless of which side you take, the approach is not a fad; strong business fundamentals drive the adoption.

How to stop worrying and love native ads

Native ads, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), are ones “that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.” The key phrase here is ‘platform behavior’. The ad ‘belongs’ because it doesn’t disrupt the fit or function of the application.

Search ads (which we all seem to have gotten used to) are native and rely heavily on the context at hand. When you type “shoes” into a search engine, you expect the ads that appear with results to be shoe-related. You don't expect motor oil or million-dollar software products. The ads have relevance to your query and are pertinent to your state of mind. You might actually click on one occasionally. Most people consider this a benefit, not a blurry trick. Ideally, native ads within content streams should work the same way.

Relevance is a valuable thing for advertisers, publishers and content consumers. And digital platforms, with search as a particular example, have that built in. But native ads on search engines are just scratching the surface. The same fundamentals are likely to drive a majority of online advertising into native territory.

Yahoo’s Joann Chen, VP of APAC Strategy & Business Ops (pictured below), who recently spoke extensively to Campaign Asia-Pacific on the topic, defines native ads as ones “that can seamlessly blend with the content”, but in a way that is clear to the user. Subtle shading or labeling of ad units within a news stream is the most common tactic. And that’s enough, Chen contends, to let users know what is an ad and what isn’t within the intimate confines of a mobile environment.

The concept of not interrupting users and striving to give benefits to digital audiences was a theme that came up repeatedly in both the trend articles and profile pieces from Campaign’s Digital A-List project. Native advertising has an aim to fit the flow and context of a given platform, so as a genre of advertising, it’s following that expert advice.

In traditional print mediums, such as nice glossy magazines, the situation is not actually so different. No one puts motor-oil ads in fashion mags, nor dress-shoe ads in car publications, because context is a selling point. You could argue that Jimmy Choo ads in Vogue or Elle are native ads (I’m not exactly, but you could). And in fashion magazines at least, let’s face it, those opulent luxury-brand ads, full of beautiful people and places, are as much a part of the magazine experience as the editorial content (perhaps even more so for some titles).

But every environment is different. As you flip through paper copies of content, it is typically quite clear which pages are editorial and which are ads. The cues are all visual—from colors to content to layout. But it all fits together in a pretty package that flows.

Moving that experience online has been a global challenge, and native ads have evolved as part of the new digital playbook.

Form follows medium

Just as overly dramatic acting techniques from silent movies faded away once 'talkies' came along, digital content should be much more subdued than its offline counterparts. Many agency creatives have commented that TVCs typically don’t port well to online venues, pointing out that the TV format has to work hard to hold your attention. In your living room, so many things vie for your eyes, from other people to other media, to the refrigerator in another room. But the small screen is personal and the format almost completely captures your focus (part of why you are not supposed to drive while using it, yeah?).

People can tune out almost everything else when they look at a smartphone—it’s a digital black hole in any conversation where someone is ‘checking their phone’. Engagement with a device is far more intense than with TV, radio or print, and the old-school hyperbole attempts to keep your attention on those formats are as out of place in the digital world as silent melodrama was in talkies.

A digital pitch—as content or ad—can then be far more subtle and still fulfill its purpose. The blurry bogeyman charge, therefore, is a bit off. Native is native because it fits, not because it misdirects. And fit isn’t a trend, its more like a natural force. Going forward, expect content creators and aggregators to get better at this.

“Native advertising that is too blurry to discern as branded content serves neither brand nor publisher," said Jason Hill, Global Media Strategist at GE (pictured below). “Brands [GE included] partner with publishers to create quality thought leadership that informs and engages target audiences. Certain publishers have proven they have great skill at helping to create that content and thinking about how to optimize it for their environments, hence we’re calling it native. But engagement doesn’t mean anything if the brand doesn’t also get a bump in awareness or association, so masking native as true editorial is not only deceptive, it’s a waste of investment.” 

Most major brands understand that distinction and will continue to look for ways to make a good fit within digital platforms; they actually have little incentive to try and hijack it. Native ads should simply provide a smooth pathway from an editorial platform to the branded territory. And with that mandate, look for more of the technique to take hold.

Size is another reason native ads can and should be subtle, according to Yahoo’s Chen. Mobile screens are small and display ads or branded content with lots of (unnecessary) signifiers are not optimal in that environment. Native ads slip seamlessly into the stream-type formats that many apps and social media have adapted. That doesn’t make them 'blurry' to users; it makes them unobtrusive.

Additionally, the kind of swiping, slide-show effect of many mobile interfaces lends itself well to a native format. Chen said the “future of [online] content consumption will be much more visual”, and the “less distracting” appearance of native ads plays right into that.

Yahoo has touted a new magazine look as part of its long-term strategy, with native ads as an integral part. A tiled presentation aggregates content from the portal as well as other publishers and bloggers. “If you are familiar with Tumblr, that’s one of our major secret weapons behind the whole ecosystem” Chen said, “there is a tremendous depth of content on that platform.” And she highlighted that about 90 per cent of Tumblr users are under the age of 34, hitting a sought-after demographic. 

The microblog site houses all kinds of content, but one of the major contingents is foodies. Yahoo’s new food-themed magazine pulls much of its content from here.

Editors at the company curate content and drive the look and feel, which is distinctly more in line with paper magazines and lends itself well to touch interfaces. Native ads are apt because they can fit the style and context quietly but markedly, giving users an opportunity to tap and explore deeper if they want to. Yahoo’s magazine format is not yet available in APAC, but Chen said to expect it perhaps as early as Q3 this year.

Mobile use is still growing, but Chen observed that the ad spend hasn’t caught up yet. She expects advertisers to gradually follow consumers to where they are spending their time, which today is clearly on mobile, especially in Asia. That’s why the company has lavished considerable resources on developing portals to better integrate native forms of advertising and become a more mobile-friendly destination. Device traffic is doubling year on year, and Australia’s desktop use has already fallen behind mobile, Chen said, adding that smartphone penetration in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan has moved ahead of the US. Chen highlighted that the unique characteristic of APAC consumers is the amount of time they spend with their mobile screens, which exceeds the same metric for US and global consumers. Research Millward Brown conducted for Yahoo early this year shows US users spend 151 minutes daily on mobiles; Hong Kong averages 156 and Taiwan 192 minutes. The global average is only 147 minutes.

All this mobile growth means ads are only likely to follow the format and become more native.

The content connection

Another fundamental pushing native to the forefront is content marketing and it own wave of growth. Inez Albert, digital sales director, APAC for The Economist Group, said there is a definite link here. “But it’s not about promotional content,” she explained.  “It’s about content that is interesting, authentic and surrounded by other high-quality content. The best native/content programs are longer-term collaborations that enable both the publisher and the brand to design a compelling narrative over time.” 

Search-engine algorithmists are constantly tweaking results to push better content to the top of the stack, major brands and their agencies are often talking ‘storytelling’ over ‘advertising’ and the term “branded content” has entered the lexicon without protest. It all points to more native ads.

Chen said that native growth “really echoes back to one of the very important 'asks' from advertisers: How can we do effective content marketing? Most of the advertisers don’t want simple display or search; they really want the user to have a chance to experience, to understand, the brand message.”

“I see native advertising as advertising that fits naturally onto a page,” said Albert. “And looks and feels like the rest of the content on it. Overall, it’s part of a general trend among brands, publishers and consumers to communicate with each other in a more natural and personal way.  And it’s simply another way of advertising that sits alongside a suite of other ad products.”

Native advertising "comes more easily" to publishers or platforms that don't have traditional editorial content, such as shopping sites and social sites, Albert continued. “For established publishers that have spent decades—or in the case of The Economist, 170 years—building reputations for quality journalism, the approach has to be much more careful," he said. "It’s important to set the bar high. Trust is becoming a rare commodity these days and publishers need to ensure that whatever shape native advertising takes on a their platforms, it should never take advantage of the trust and regard of its readers.”

The print business had some 500 hundred years to evolve; advertising found its place within it eventually, speaking the native language of the media. TV had a much shorter arc but again ads found their place—and let’s not forget about paid product placement if you want to talk about ‘blurry’ ads.

We’re barely a few decades into the digital revolution. Native ads are just starting to find their place. But expect that place to be permanent.


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