Can you accurately define a native ad? Research suggests you might get stuck, even if you could be one of the many that have helped ‘native’ in commercial terms evolve from ad industry buzzword to the future of website monetisation.

Last year a survey from Adyoulike found that just 77% of the UK’s top 20 ad agencies were “very confident” in their ability to explain to their clients what a native ad is, despite 83% using some form of native in their campaigns. In most cases this would create a furore over agencies bandying around terms like ‘native’ without being able to supply a ‘by the book’ definition of what they truly mean. In this particular situation, however, such a response would be unwarranted.

Native advertising may be the loosely described term for paid media which fits into the unique surroundings of an environment or platform. It may take various shapes or forms.

It may also be constructing stronger ties between advertisers, agencies and publishers than so many of the other forms of advertising it’s likely to outlive, and it may be the single biggest driver of publisher innovation around. There appears to be confusion over native as a format, but in looking at so many of its blatant examples across the web, there can be no confusion over its potential.

The ongoing struggle

Part of the reason why native is becoming such a tough phrase to nail down could be owed to the sheer amount of ad formats interpreted as a member of its brood. 

The sponsored post you saw cropping up around lunchtime on your favourite online news site; the branded video you saw placed in the middle of an article on that same site, on that same lunch break; the external content recommendations listed below your piece. All have been labelled as native. The web is jam-packed with examples of native going to work, but only a few themes ring true. 

For one, native ads can offer value to the consumer beyond just alerting them to a company they ‘may’ want to connect with. That’s not a criticism for the creative bods that fail to inject uncharted degrees of excitement into their banner ads, which remain a vital part of the display landscape. It’s just that users could find more benefit and enjoyment in reading through a book publisher’s sponsored post on ‘The Typical Problems of a Reader’, as opposed to being told by a banner ad to simply buy a new novel. 

Native ads can also be delivered in rich formats, and placed as to seem cohesive with the content they accompany. 

In the words of the IAB Native Advertising Playbook – one of very few sets of native guidelines for advertisers, publishers and agencies to follow – the goal is to be as consistent with the site’s platform that “the viewer simply feels they belong”. In-feed advertising and even paid search listings embody this idea to the nth degree, providing useful ads that can be acted upon with the click of a button. It’s offerings like these that have proved so enticing for advertisers and publishers alike. 

Crossing wires

Conflicts over whether activity on channels like search and social media could be regarded as native will continue as the format evolves. But according to Adam Rock, managing director of content marketing agency and native ad specialist TAN Media, some of the most important conversations brands will have about their native campaigns are centered around performance.

“Although there continues to be conflicting definitions of native advertising, it is not so much a worry, but a responsibility to ensure that advertisers are clear on what they are buying and how each native service performs against their KPIs.
“There are instances where some formats are labelled as native when actually they are irritating, misleading, and irrelevant to the consumer, and do not meet the standards set out by the IAB. These guidelines should be the bare minimum that advertisers and publishers strive towards when planning native campaigns.
“With so many variations in the execution of native, agencies and service providers must be clear on deliverables, which – currently – vary wildly across the industry.” 

Rock agrees that guidelines such as the Native Advertising Playbook can be broken down to accommodate more room for native ad formats. But while there is a sense that publishers and agencies are awaiting a clearer definition of what native is, native advertising in its relevant infancy is something that cannot – and perhaps should not – be a cut and dry affair.

Best practice

Native supporters have also leapt to its defence by claiming that advertisers and publishers are entering a whole new realm of creativity by tackling this form of paid media head-on. The common theme to be derived from most points surrounding native in its current form is innovation, and it’s the publishers that have responded well to the opportunity on offer.

Unilever’s multi-million pound partnership with Guardian Labs is a fine example of publishers recognising how native should work at all ends of the table. 

Readers of the Guardian were treated to articles on interesting happenings and stories in sustainability – a key point of focus for the Unilever brand, according to the group’s CMO, Keith Weed – and were introduced to the company without becoming inundated by the calls to action they might get on TV. 

In this case study, the consumer is treated to informative, useful content on change affecting their world as they are told about how they can give something back to the environment. On the advertiser’s side, the Unilever brand is cast in a positive light by displaying its commitment to a worthy cause. Finally, the online publisher in the Guardian has created a new stream of ad revenue without compromising its integrity, and it’s lucrative contracts like the one passed over by Unilever that will help the big guns in publishing stay free-to-view.

Consumer protection

Looking ahead, it seems that what the format doesn’t need over 2015 and beyond is an industry nit-picking over what constitutes as ‘true native’, governed by a one-sentence definition for its point of reference.

Clare O’Brien is IAB UK’s senior industry programmes manager and recently took to the writer’s pedestal at PerformanceIN to urge participation and debate from performance groups over guidelines for native advertising. Still lacking a true consensus from representatives across the advertising industry, the IAB’s Content & Native Council has carved a basic set of guidelines spanning across four top-level categories for ads that have been highlighted as native in their form.

Despite the IAB’s plans for further discussions and meetings on native ads, there is also a sense that being too stringent on what makes inventory of this nature could have a detrimental impact on the format in question.

“A lot of people get stuck with native advertising around the definitions but the thing is, if that’s what you focus on, then it’ll be hard to start testing and experimenting with what works for your platform, brand or audience,” says O’Brien. 

“There is no one type of format that is in any way approaching a ‘de facto’ native ad. Some people describe different ad forms from bespoke and sponsored content to promoted posts and programmatic recommendation engines all as native; others won’t have the word uttered in their corridors.”

All the while, debates over consumer protection, as stated by Rock, will rage on. Thankfully the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has already exercised its right to clamp down on such cases with the banning of a “non-identifiable” promotion by content recommendation platform Outbrain last year. 

YouTube v-loggers also came under scrutiny from the ASA in 2014 after a publicity stunt involving Oreo manufacturer Mondelez and web stars Dan and Phil was axed for its failure to inform viewers of its commercial nature. Furthermore, as both cases saw action on the grounds of just a single complaint, the ASA appears to be snuffing out the culprits without hesitation.

So as certain corners of the industry ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ over a crystal clear definition of what native advertising really is, some publishers will be spending their time experimenting with different forms of on-site inventory in the hope of finding something that resonates with their audience and balance sheets. There isn’t a right or wrong answer as to which is more important at this stage, but one side is clearly receiving more recognition.