Native advertising: 1 part creative, 1 part distribution

This column was authored by Scott Messer, Senior Director, Business Development at D360.

Native advertising predates modern marketing. You might not have noticed, because it is continually reinventing itself whenever content delivery platforms emerge, meld or transform. Every medium from TV to the printing press, and probably even the town crier, has used “native” as a form to sustain business.

Let’s take the major platform of our era: the Internet. It has long survived on banners and flashy rich media campaigns, but recently “native” has raced to the top of the charts, dominating brand spend discussions, bailing out startups looking for a pivot, catapulting newsroom junkies into the spotlight and making headlines, by, well, making headlines (and sometimes cat gifs).

Simply put, native advertising is paid ads 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.

Native has been heralded as many things: a shining hope for publishers with mobile problems, a soapbox for brands with (or looking for) a voice, and especially a defense against a shaky banner ecosystem. But there’s one thing it’s never been called: simple.

What is your native?

The key to mastering “What is Native” is first recognizing the two sides of the business: content creators and content distributors. The former is responsible for making the beautiful, seamless integrations of brands and content, be it image, text or video that fits the form and design of the other natural content on the platform.

The latter is about promoting awareness of, and driving users to, your content. After all, none of us are in this business to write a private diary. We want eyeballs on our work. So, audience drivers are putting content in-feed, in widgets, in-read, in the right rail, in-app and in everything because that is where a native ad has to be.

Note: Purists may call this “native display.” Whatever makes you feel better.

Marketing your content

Traffic acquisition is nothing new to the trade, but bots and popups won’t solve your problems here. When your ROI is measured with engagement, time on site, bounce rate, brand lift, earned media and other similarly soft goals, it’s hard to fake success.

You really have to find a like-minded audience and lure them in with an enticing promise about using their time valuably. Anecdotally, we see that CTR of an in-feed native ad can be 40x higher when promoting relevant, interesting content versus promoting a blatant piece of direct response landing page click bait.

This is where the complexity comes in. As we try to make native seamless, we are actually rebuilding, or rather re-implementing, much of the technology that is being widely used for display advertising. Handled largely through ad-servers, native display ads are delivered in every way that normal display ads can be (direct, RTB, PMP) with all the same targeting capabilities (contextual, audience, geo, etc), with one exceptional complication: the creative.

My native is not your native

Until now, display ads have been largely delivered as completely assembled images in standard sizes with little dynamism. That’s now changing with dynamic creative technologies. And, since each and every native display placement has to potentially fit every website, native ads are taking advantage of similar technologies. In order to get creative elements—headline, thumbnail and click url, among others—to look like they were created custom for each site, platforms must load each element separately and deliver them in pieces.

These platforms then decide which assets to show to whom and when. The individual elements are then rendered on the server or client side and appear on the page via a widget, embed, hard-code, SDK, ad tag or the pure magic that makes native happen. This is where the IAB Open RTB 2.3 Standards and Native Specs come in handy by creating standards for all of these transactions and deliveries.

No matter the secret sauce though, the goal is to hide in plain sight and not overtly disrupt the user’s natural onsite behavior.

The Scale Myth

“Native does not scale.” Bullshit. It scales really well, really fast. High quality content with brand integrations is being created faster and more precisely than ever before, and content distribution is becoming much more of a valuable endeavor for users. The combination of the two is fueling more brand investment, which allows publishers to build out in-house agencies and develop new native distribution programs.

Native display is growing up very quickly and it will soon be traded programmatically just like display and video advertising. Once we hit full native programmatic, the cycle of native investment will only hasten and grow the opportunity faster.

And now, a cautionary tale from your sponsor

The future of native advertising lies in our hands. If the industry can maintain enthusiasm for inspired content and the discipline to engage users in a productive manner, “native” as we know it will survive.

Lazy content and disrespecting users will degrade the product from the inside, exposing ourselves to schlockmeisters intent on devaluing both native display and brand journalism. Right now, we’re self-regulating ourselves pretty well, but eschewing proper disclosure, opt-outs and generally taunting the FTC can only summon a world of bureaucratic regulation sure to cramp everybody’s style.

So let’s keep up the momentum and focus on bringing valuable content experiences, and brands, to our loyal visitors.

More from Digiday

Teads’ M&A rumors are firming up with a deal to merge with Outbrain

The latest installment of ad tech M&A activity is leaving some industry folks surprised.

Manchester City uses Fortnite to expand its global audience

As Manchester City rolls out its own Fortnite experience, it will have to contend with the fact that this brand new world does not come with a pre-existing user base. To address this problem, the company plans to leverage its network of players and talent to spread the word across their social feeds.

How Chipotle’s fighting-game-focused esports strategy is paying off at Evo 2024

In 2024, Chipotle’s choice to court the relatively niche fighting game community appears to have paid off. According to a joint study by YouGov and the agency rEvolution, which helped develop Chipotle’s gaming strategy, U.S. esports fans between the ages of 18 and 44 reported a nearly 100% increase in their intent to purchase Chipotle following the brand’s esports campaign last year.