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How to Rock Mobile Native Advertising


When Melanie Deziel’s New York Times colleagues tweeted “impressively produced” and “can’t believe I’m sharing a paid post … even mobile-friendly” about a native ad that she and her team had created, she knew T Brand Studio had gotten some things right.

What things, exactly? She shared her answers at Content Marketing World, How Innovative Brands Are Getting More out of Their Mobile Native Advertising Campaigns. Read on for highlights from Melanie’s talk.

What we talk about when we talk about native advertising

I confess, as a word nerd, I fell in love with Melanie when she declared marketers have forgotten that “native” is an adjective and it describes advertising.

Native advertising goes by many names, including sponsored content, promoted content, paid posts, and branded content. (Some marketers avoid – even loathe – the term “branded content” because it “gives agencies permission to keep talking about themselves, adding a bit of storytelling to product pitches.”)

To get clear about what she’s talking about when she talks about native advertising, let’s look at each word.

  • “Native” means indigenous, belonging to an environment. “A plant is native to a certain climate,” Melanie says. “A person is native to a place. When we say that content is native or advertising is native, it means that it fits in the environment where it is served or received.”
  • “Advertising” means paid. One company paying another to publish the content.

As CMI founder Joe Pulizzi sums it up, “If you pay for placement of … content in a format similar to the third-party site, it’s native advertising.”

If you pay for placement of content in a format similar to 3rd-party site, it's #nativeadvertising. @joepulizzi Share on X

While native advertising and content marketing are sometimes handled by separate teams with separate strategies, consider developing a strategy that covers both. Native advertising can help you achieve the same goals for your other content such as increasing brand awareness, driving people to your website, and building your subscriber base. You may discover new opportunities when you think of native advertising as simply another set of distribution channels for your valuable, relevant content – channels you happen to pay for.

Why Melanie talks about native advertising and mobile devices

You couldn’t find a person better equipped to talk about native advertising than Melanie, the founder of an industry newsletter on the topic, The Overlap League. Her journalism background has prepared her to create riveting, deeply researched stories, such as the 2014 piece that had her New York Times colleagues raving on Twitter. Her native advertising rivals the quality of the best editorial content in the world.

The piece, which explored the reality of life for women inmates, was part of The New York Times series sponsored by Netflix, the distributor of Orange Is The New Black. It was published before Season 2 was released. For a time, Melanie says, her article “appeared in the most-emailed module on the home page of The New York Times.”

Uh huh. A piece of sponsored content won over more readers than anything else in this prestigious purveyor of “all the news that’s fit to print.”

A piece of sponsored #content won over more @nytimes readers than its editorial content, says @MarciaRJohnston. Share on X


While native advertising isn’t a strictly mobile phenomenon, Melanie urges marketers to focus on the mobile experience of native ads. It’s easy to get the mobile experience wrong and important to get it right.

Marketers: Focus on the #mobile experience of native ads, says @mdeziel. Share on X

Don’t disrupt – go with the content flow

First things first: Ads (native or not) must stop hijacking our small screens. Melanie describes an experience we’ve all had: You’re reading on a smartphone when an ad takes over, and you can’t close it. Sometimes you get the ad to go away only to discover that your article has disappeared with it. Or closing it merely reveals another ad.

If we want people to welcome native advertising, Melanie says, we must present it in the flow of the content people came for.

Fellow presenter Jay Lauf made the same point in his Content Marketing World talk, Deconstructing Quartz ( How One of the Most Popular Mobile Destinations Grows Audience, Extends Reach in Digital, and Creates a Superior Content Experience. Jay gives this sampling of tweets in which people let loose about intrusive ads on mobile websites:


Jay’s favorite is the bottom middle tweet: This “mobile site captures that nostalgia for when you’d be trying to read the paper but someone kept slapping it out of your hand.”

Instead of irritating our audiences, why not create native ads they’re likely to welcome, like this one (in the middle of the screen):


In this example, Jay, co-president and publisher of Quartz (“a new kind of global business news outlet”), shows its daily newsletter, which smoothly incorporates a “sponsored content” item. This native advertising is straightforward, interesting, and easy to read on a smartphone. Jay quotes one customer who calls Quartz native ads “friendly and unobtrusive.”

When’s the last time someone complimented your native ads?

“We don’t do pop-overs,” Jay says. “You’ll never see a push-down. You’ll never see a pre-roll ad on Quartz.” People encounter native ads only as they scroll from article to article. “It’s the only place I’ve worked where I get unsolicited love letters on Twitter about the ad product itself.”

Go mobile first, not mobile friendly

Melanie says, “Mobile friendly means that you can access the content from a mobile device. That isn’t enough anymore,” she says, pointing out that more than 50% of Google searches have come from mobile devices for several years.

“We need to create content, including ads, for mobile-first,” says Melanie.

“Mobile first” means more than matching the ad format to the look and feel of a site or app. It means matching the ad’s form, function, quality, and style to the content around it, creating a seamless user experience. A mobile-first approach takes advantage of the unique things that mobile devices make possible. Melanie urges marketers to “capitalize on the fact that mobile is a completely different environment.”

Consider the travel toothbrush, Melanie says. Yes, it may need to be smaller, but smart designers consider other factors. Should it have fewer bristles or just as many as a full-size toothbrush? Should it have a folding handle? How about a cap or case? What else would the mobile toothbrush user appreciate? If you simply downsize a standard toothbrush, you miss opportunities to add value.

Same goes for native advertising. “When we look just at screen size, we miss out on a huge opportunity,” Melanie says. “The best mobile native ads take advantage of things we can do with phones that we can’t do on desktops, on TV, or anywhere else.”

Native ads must take advantage of the uniqueness of #mobile devices - not just fit a small screen. @mdeziel Share on X

To take advantage of the uniqueness of mobile devices, Melanie suggests aligning our native advertising with these three things (as explored in the following sections):

  • User intent
  • User experience
  • Device physicality

Align with user intent

Does your brand align its native advertising with user intent? Granted, the methods are limited. “A lot of times the options that we have for targeting are not as discreet as our users’ intents,” Melanie admits.

Still, we want to anticipate, as much as possible, why people come to a page or channel and deliver content accordingly.

Take Pinterest (which Melanie describes memorably as “the place for the recipes I’ll never make, the clothes I’ll never wear, and the crafts I’ll never do”). As a soon-to-be bride flipping through Pinterest boards one day, Melanie was delighted to find many pins aligned perfectly with her intent: She wanted to look at beautiful white gowns.

Suddenly, a pin sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods appeared. It was a native ad in the sense that it copied the format of the pins around it. Unfortunately for the brand, the content of the ad – hot-pink running shorts – clashed with Melanie’s intent that day. “It left a bad taste in my mouth,” she says.


Besides the inappropriateness of the shorts in that moment, the photo treatment stood out. The ads surrounding the invader were all high-quality images of dresses worn in a natural environment while the shorts were a typical product shot.

“This ad wasn’t going to fit my intent, even if it was well targeted,” she says.

Align with user experience

People’s experiences vary from one channel to another in predictable ways. On Instagram, for example, “we look for pictures from people we know,” Melanie says. “We expect a human experience. If I’m looking for some product inspiration, it would be something like which hair products my friends are using or where they’re going for vacation.”

What we’re not looking for on Instagram is a duplication on a company website. Take this Instagram post from Reed Fashion. While Melanie loves the shoe brand, she doesn’t love seeing screen after screen of product shots throughout the Instagram feed.


“They post these images three or four times a day. Shoes, shoes, shoes. On Instagram, if you’re going to show shoes, show feet in them. Show them on a floor. Pair them with a purse,” she says.

On Instagram, to fit the expected experience, take Melanie’s advice: “Ask yourself: If your brand were a human, what would we see? It’s probably not a product shot on a white background.”

Align with device physicality

Finally (and most fun, Melanie says), look for ways to acknowledge the physicality of mobile devices. When you deliver content to someone’s mobile device, “your brand is in their hand,” she says. So is a camera, an accelerometer, and a gizmo that knows exactly where that hand is in the world.

Some of the most engaging native ads take advantage of the unique capabilities of mobile devices.

Some of the most engaging native ads use the unique capabilities of mobile devices, says @MarciaRJohnston. Share on X

For example, when Melanie was with the New York Times’ T Brand Studio, she worked with IBM and the team behind the movie Hidden Figures to create a piece of sponsored content in the form of an app. People who downloaded the app could go on a scavenger hunt throughout the country, discovering landmarks that gave tribute to famous women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Whenever app users were near one of these landmarks, their phone prompted them. They could visit the statue or whatever the landmark might be. They also got an augmented-reality experience of that thing coming to life and giving facts about it.



If you’re creating native advertising – sponsored content – you have a lot to take into account. For one thing, you must design with the mobile experience in mind, which means more than just making your content accessible and legible on mobile devices. Melanie suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

  • Why are users here?
  • How do users expect to interact in this environment?
  • What can users do with a phone that they couldn’t do on a desktop, TV, or any other sort of thing they might get content from?

What are you doing to rock your brand’s mobile native advertising?

Here’s an excerpt from Melanie’s talk: 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute