What is “native advertising” anyway?

Posted: April 8th, 2015 under advertising, Digital Migration. Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The IAB has published their view. I have my own opinion.

One of the biggest problems with “native advertising” is that it is such a new, made-up term of digital art, that it’s taken on an Alice in Wonderland-esque quality, in which the phrase means whatever the speaker thinks it means in that moment, while the listener pretty much has their own interpretation.

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

According to the IAB, these are the recognized varieties of native advertising (h/t Eric Berry and Native Insider):

  1. In-feed
  2. Paid search
  3. Recommendation widgets
  4. Promoted listings
  5. IAB standard (with native elements)
  6. Other

I have to kind of shake my head at this. Paid search is a kind of native ad? Hang on. Isn’t that pretty much just what Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. sell? The text and links that appear on top of your SERPs, right?

Come on. We all pretty much know this as paid search advertising. Whyinnahell are we going to lump this into native ads? Doesn’t this just muddy the waters?

Look, I’m not trying to be cranky and nitpicky here, but we’ve got enough confusion going on in digital advertising these days without tossing all kinds of stuff into the bin and slapping the New Hotness label of “native advertising” on it. Let’s just try to keep the stuff that’s in categories that we already pretty much understand and agree upon, snugly comfortable in said categories, while we fumble around for acceptable definitions of all the new stuff that pops up, oh, pretty much Every Other Day Fer Crissakes.

So what is native advertising? From the IAB blog report above, it is listed as: “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated with the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.”

OK, that’s feels more like it. My understanding of native ads is that they are the posts that you see in your Facebook/Twitter/bOINGbOING/whatever feeds, that kinda blend in with all the other stuff that you came to that site to look at. The native ads look a little bit like the content that you’re there to enjoy, but different enough so that you can tell that they are ads.

How hard is that?

Just start and stop the 6-item list above at item #1 and let’s all go get a sammich, already.

Look, I’m not against the other ad types – hell, if you manage to scroll through this entire post, you’ll see that I’m using a widget/plugin to display other recommended articles (item #3 on the list, although by no means am I getting paid for this). Thing is, we already have a pretty good descriptor of this. It’s called “paid recommendations at the bottom of the content,” and if you’ve been surfing the blogosphere in the past year, you’re seeing this stuff pretty much everywhere (thanks Outbrain!). So why are we cramming what YARRP and Disqus and Taboola do into a category that also includes what Google and Yahoo do. And Facebook. And Etsy. And Amazon.

Jesus, just strip the “native” out of the moniker and replace it with “digital” and you’ve pretty much nailed it. The category “native advertising” as defined by the IAB is so broad, encompasses so many different types and functions and placements of advertising that it’s just amorphous and useless, rather than something that serves any kind of useful purpose.

Now, why is this important?

Well, when you look at the global trends in advertising, you can see what’s happening. Brands have been pretty much fleeing display for the past few years, CPMs are in freefall because of programmatic, and the migration to mobile web browsing is squeezing the pixels out of viewable space (NYT says that they think 75% of pageviews will come via mobile by 2018).

So on the mobile deck, how do you serve up ads? Tiny banners that get tapped on more by error than on purpose? Little blue links? Takeover ads that piss off the users?

Or – like I said above – content that flows into the feed, but that is distinct enough from what publishers are producing so that the audience doesn’t feel manipulated and betrayed?

This is not to say that there are no problems with this model. Check out what Eddy Moretti, head of video for VICE, said about the way that they struggle to match up the lurid/violent/edgy/sexy content that they produce to attract an audience, with what brands want to put their logos next to:


All this to say: I’ve proposed a session at for the ONA national convention in Los Angeles this fall, to try to get journalists & content creators to start coming up with our own definitions of what constitutes “acceptable” native ad guidelines. Despite what ad copywriters who feel threatened might say, the future of news is probably going to include a lot of journos working to produce content that 1) attracts an audience, 2) includes messaging from advertisers and 3) makes traditional journalists wring their hands and wail about the death of integrity and how we need to maintain the fabled “wall between ad and editorial.”

Obviously, I don’t think we should just chuck all editorial independence and become shills for whoever writes the fattest check. But I do think that we need to start taking a critical look at what new professionals can and cannot allow, or that is exactly the kind of future we will all wind up with.

Oh, and finally, one last bit about the “native advertising” guidelines put out by the IAB:

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.(from previously cited Eric Berry piece)

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