By Mark Sherbin published January 20, 2013

How Your Content Distribution Can Use Native Advertising

Native advertising is a disruptive technique that is positioned to change the advertising business model. It is alternatively being hailed as a breath of fresh air and a controversial, exploitative new tactic. It has, in fact, been both. 

For content marketers, native advertising has unique implications. It opens up a method of content distribution many marketers have ignored, making it a potential key to getting more eyes on your content. It inspires the confidence that you’re actually reaching potential customers, and its strong ability to take context into account helps ensure you can target buyers with more accurate timing and a more relevant message.

Is native advertising ready for mass adoption? That, of course, depends on how you approach it.

What is native advertising?

Though native advertising is not a new discipline, the availability of new tools that tap into its potential has motivated journalists and marketers to more clearly define its parameters and value.

According to digital advertising firm Solve Media, native advertising refers to a specific mode of monetization that aims to augment user experience through relevant content that is delivered in-stream.

Popular social media sites have put native advertising in play through examples like:

  • Promoted tweets on Twitter
  • Sponsored stories on Facebook
  • Featured videos on YouTube

These advertisements appear as part of the typical browsing experience. They engage the viewer with relevant ad content that flows naturally into the rest of the content on the website.

Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of start-up OneSpot, defines native advertising as “non-interruptive” advertising. “Sponsored search results, for example, are native to the search experience,” he explains. “Promoted tweets are native to the Twitter browsing experience. These advertisement aren’t asking you to do something other than what you’ve come to the website to do already.”

Promoted tweets on Twitter

OneSpot pulls an article’s headline, featured photo, and social shares into a neat display advertisement. The system pairs these ads with relevant content, and even retargets readers with more content on other sites, adjusting for where the prospect might be in the sales funnel. Measuring the impact is simple: OneSpot’s analytics platform follows the buyer from the advertisement to the desired action.

Sharethrough focuses on a similar niche, but it specializes in video. The start-up places high-quality video advertisements within the typical flow of a video publisher website. Advertorial video content featured on these sites is still content the audience may be interested in — it’s simply branded content and may conclude with a brief brand message.

One painfully bad example of native advertising

By now, you may have heard about that time “The Atlantic” broke the internet. Just about everyone in media was in an uproar over what happened — but no one is completely sure why the publisher’s actions were so wrong.

To catch you up, the 157-year-old publication posted an article clearly endorsing the Church of Scientology. Though the article was marked “Sponsor Content,” significant backlash on the content led “The Atlantic” to retract the post and issue an apology.

“The Atlantic” makes a native advertising error.

Columbia Journalism Review aptly points out where the criticisms stem from. Two specific takeaways from the debacle can help us begin to shape native advertising best practices:

  • Bypass the sales message: The sponsored Scientology article was clear propaganda from an already controversial source. Content marketing, a practice that inherently bypasses the pitch in lieu of a conversation, is a clear match with native advertising. In order to truly be native, the content must be of a clear value to the audience.
  • Match content with coverage: “The Atlantic” didn’t seem to take into account that the Scientology article had no real value or appeal to its target audience. Native ads must be placed with the audience in mind. Otherwise, they’re disruptive and won’t be of much help in targeting potential customers.

True, the line between great content and propoganda is often a fine one, indeed. But both the publisher and the brand have a responsibility to always monitor their own practices closely, lest things go very, very wrong — as it did in this case.

After the fiasco experienced by “The Atlantic,” it is understandable that marketers may be wary of alienating audiences with native advertising. Luckily, other major publishers are paving a more viable path for the practice.

A few examples of successful native advertising

Look away from the Atlantic’s car wreck for a second and you’ll find two great examples of major brands putting native advertising to work successfully:

Forbes BrandVoice
Born from the business publication’s rebranded AdVoice platform, Forbes BrandVoice is a milestone program in the world of native advertising. The program includes sponsored content from brands like Cartier, CapitalOne, and SAP that fits the publication’s coverage.

Forbes’ AdVoice platform.


The Awl

The popular current events website includes a simple tactic used by other publishers across the web. A box at the bottom of the screen juxtaposes content hosted on the website with content from other websites.

Native advertising offering from "The Awl."

Native advertising offering from “The Awl.”

(For a few more examples, check out this “AdWeek” article, which ironically highlights “The Atlantic’s” success in native advertising.)

Now that we know what it is and who’s doing it, why is native advertising such a great fit for content marketers? And how can you leverage it for content marketing success?

Why and how it works well for content marketing

Native advertising is a natural extension of content marketing: Brands trade relevant information for brand exposure or time spent directly on their websites. The difference is that with native advertising, you pay to put that content in front of more eyes. Yet, it’s not quite traditional advertising in that, with a native strategy, you’re throwing out the pitch and starting the conversation.

Content marketers have the potential to derive great benefits from native advertising, including:

  • Reaching audience members outside your channels: Until now, content marketers have been happy to focus on owned and earned media. Paid media brings its own benefits to the table, including the opportunity to extend your reach to your intended audience across trusted channels.
  • Extending the life of content: Today, publishers accept that the life span of a blog post or other piece of content is unpredictable. Through native advertising, there’s a clear opportunity to bring dusty (but still powerful) content back to the forefront.
  • Retargeting leads and prospects: The evolving nature of content personalization and context marketing means we have the ability to apply these concepts to native advertising, assuring we’re guiding advertising prospects through the sales funnel.

These benefits are reliant on a strong native advertising approach. Here are a few high level tips that should be taken into account when you’re finally ready to launch your own native advertising strategy:

  • Ads must be ultra-relevant to the content with which they’re paired: ”The Atlantic” caught flack because it abused the trust of its readership — arguably the biggest faux pas in the history of branding. Relevance ensures that you’re targeting readers who may actually become customers. It also ups the value of the content itself for readers, increasing the chance that they’ll follow through to the desired action.
  • Native advertising is only worth doing if you have end-to-end control: I noted earlier why retargeting was such a useful part of native advertising. To get there, you must have the ability to measure your progress and track the potential customer from the moment they click on the ad until they’ve filled out that lead form. That’s how you test your campaigns and, in the long run, establish your ROI.
  • The best native advertising still points back to your website: While Forbes’ program is groundbreaking, native advertising strategies like OneSpot’s give you the ability to drive traffic back to your site. As always, it’s better to host content on your website.

Share your thoughts

Are you planning to invest in native advertising this year? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Learn more about techniques and technologies that are on the cutting edge of content marketing practice. Register now to attend Content Marketing World 2013

Author: Mark Sherbin

Mark Sherbin is a freelance writer specializing in technology and content marketing. He shares occasionally insightful information at Copywriting Is Dead, where he promotes authentic communication between organizations and their audiences. Contact him at msherbin@gmail.com.

Other posts by Mark Sherbin

  • Kimberly

    But where can marketers find native advertising opportunities?

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Well, Kimberly, it definitely depends on the size of your budget. As I mentioned in the examples, some major brands partner with Forbes. Others can work with vendors like OneSpot and Sharethrough.

  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    Nice content Mark, addressing a Q that’s on marketers’ minds. I’m starting to get it. “Sponsored content… digital advertorial… ‘youtility’ advertising” maybe. I guess nobody’s asked me to name this technique, but why would the word “native” describe this form? In my mind “native” suggests the publisher created it. You with me? It’s like the implication is Forbes brought you this. But they didn’t. Capital One did–by paying for it. Seems like a distraction technique to sell advertising. Toss a recipe in a food ad and it’s “native.” Hmm.

    • http://twitter.com/copyblogger Brian Clark

      Barry, I take the use of native to mean it resembles the native editorial environment. Which we already had a word for (advertorial). But you know, gotta rebrand something to make it new and innovative for the web. ;)

      • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

        Thanks Brian. Your explanation makes the word “native” make some sense. Maybe the Super Bowl will sell native advertising and instead of going to a Bud Light commercial, they go to the announcer’s booth and the guys will share valuable tips about enjoying a nice cold beverage while watching the game.

      • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

        Yep, I think Brian hit the nail on the head here. Even if it resembles an editorial in approach, though, I don’t necessarily see them as the exact same concepts. The Atlantic example is a traditional advertorial — promotional content that, when read thoroughly, is clearly an advertisement.

        To be truly native, I think you have to create useful content that doesn’t read like a sales pitch or have overtly promotional undertones throughout, much like content marketing. If people find the article useful in the context, it doesn’t interrupt the user experience the way a giant flashing banner ad would.

      • http://contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Joe Pulizzi

        Right…Forbes has been doing AdVoice for a while in print as well…

  • http://www.remlaproductions.com Andrae Palmer

    I use facebook sponsered stories to promote my record label’s releases to my fanbase and find new fans which makes alot of sense given our small budget.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Thanks for sharing, Andrae!

  • Ant

    Nice article Mark. Thanks. I think the key reason marketers are getting excited content marketing & native advertising this is that for the first time marketers have an opportunity to do true ‘top of the funnel’ brand marketing online. As you point out this is not about selling. It is about building intent which includes category building, thought leadership and starting the relationship with a potential customer. The relationship is built thru a conversation. This conversation always starts with creating (or curating) valuable content. The real diifference from then and now is scale. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Outbrain allow this to happen at scale that will increasingly rival traditional offline options. As an Outbrain person I could be biased. As a marketer for the past 20 years I am excited.

  • http://geniusgeneration.us/ Dwayne Golden Jr

    I’ve had much success with sponsored tweets for my penny auction website as well as a sponsored posts on facebook. Great post I think it’s especially effective for new start ups.

  • http://twitter.com/Adriel_S Adriel Sanchez

    Good thought-provoking article, Mark.

    You’re right. Native advertising (or the artist formerly known as contextual advertising) is nothing new. It’s product placement for the digital era. Paid Search strives to be ‘native’ based on the context of the searcher’s keyword. Companies such as Vibrant Media have been doing contextual advertising for quite some time. Call it ‘paid’ pull marketing.

    The difference is in the new tools emerging to make ‘paid pull’, or sponsored stories, or whatever we call it, truly “native”. Facebook for instance, has released tools that allow advertisers to layer their data over Facebook’s to aid in targeting. And the algorithms just keep getting better.

    But in my opinion, the technology isn’t quite ‘native’ yet (I’ve never read a sponsored Facebook story or sponsored Tweet that felt truly ‘native’). Putting a link to a Crystal Reports reseller in my Facebook feed might be relevant based on my job, but it definitely doesn’t feel native to the rest of the conversations on my wall.

    And there will always be pressure bewteen being native and scale. I can get really native with a handful of people a day. But if you want to build any kind of scale, it might require a less dogmatic approach.

    So, do I plan to test ‘native advertising’ in 2013? Short answer: We strive to be native in all our paid media, and we ‘settle’ for relevant when we need to drive scale.

    Lastly, I actually think we do the industry a disservice with the constant re-branding of similar or evolved practices. Native advertising is just the next evolution of contextual advertising. In my opinion, it doesn’t need a new name.

  • Daron

    From what i understood from this article, i would say pron sites are the pioneers of this kind of native advertising

  • http://www.HireYourVirtualAssistant.com Owen McGab Enaohwo

    Besides OneSpot which other platforms offer the automatically promotion of blog content in the form of banner ads?