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Native Advertising: Is It Still a Shady Practice in 2015?

Sergio Aicardi

"I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately, they're good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross."

That's John Oliver's humorous take on native advertising in an episode of HBO's "Last Week Tonight" from August, and it couldn’t be more applicable to native advertising. It's a funny stance on a serious issue, meant to elicit a laugh from the audience, but it's actually pretty indicative of one stance on native advertising and how it can be perceived. If you’re questioning native advertising this upcoming year, consider some of the ways to do it right, how to do it wrong, and the different perceptions that exist.

What is native advertising?

Native Advertising Word Cloud

Native advertising is essentially companies camouflaging ads to make them look like news stories. It is paid online marketing; only the ad is embedded in the sites naturally to look like standard content from the publication. The idea is to gain extra visibility, which makes sense given how the typical consumer ignores classic advertising like banner ads and the old "pop-up" way of advertising.

According to, the term (originally "native monetization") was introduced to the industry in September 2011 by Fred Wilson at the Online Media, Marketing and Advertising conference. In the three-plus years since Wilson's speech, there have been more than 600,000 pieces of content (articles, blog posts, graphics, etc.) on native advertising and its impact. BIA/Kelsey, a company that examines and analyzes media, marketing and advertising, predicted back in 2012 that by 2016, revenue from native advertising could reach $9.6 billion and as of 2014, over $125 million is invested in funding native advertising companies.

In other words, native advertising is turning into a huge movement, which you can learn more about here from a inforgraphic.

Most consumers don't even realize they're reading or consuming an ad, since it looks, feels and sounds/reads like any other part of the site. It's geared toward the audience of the site/publication and written with the same tone/voice as the rest of the content on the site.

The problem is, however, there are no guidelines that exist for publishers in relation to native advertising. Seeing a few examples will help you understand the pros and the cons.

A Few Examples of Both Good and Bad Native Advertising

Native advertising is probably way more common than you think. There's even a good chance you've experienced a native ad today and didn't even notice it. Here are some examples of recent native ads:

The New York Times

It appears as if this is an article about women in prison, but its true intention is to promote season 2 of Netflix's original show "Orange is the New Black" (as you can see by the little Netflix logo at the top):

NYT Native Advertising Sample


Native advertising can be found all over Buzzfeed, as the type of content is a natural fit for advertisers to take advantage of. Below are a couple of examples from Buzzfeed:

Buzzfeed Native Advertising

Buzzfeed Native Advertising 2

Both are pretty serious stretches from the intended product in the ad. The Discovery Channel show "Moonshiners" is about an illegal act, sure, but it's probably safe to say that most people know Moonshine is illegal, so an article about "20 Things You Didn't Know Were Illegal" isn't directly related to the Discovery Channel's production.

As for Taco Bell, it's a complete stretch to try to tie in a new "Loaded Grillers" dish with 10 photos that never should have been shared. What's interesting about both examples is they are both very similar to standard Buzzfeed content and they are actual pieces of content.

The 10 photos that shouldn't have been shared really did have 10 photos that the author/authors thought shouldn't have been shared. It seems exactly like something you'd find on Buzzfeed normally; the only difference is it's written/produced by a Buzzfeed partner in Taco Bell.

Here are a couple of other common examples of native ads:

Native Ad Samples

In the above example, you can see the little "sponsor provided content" disclaimer above the article, but it otherwise looks just like the rest of the content on the page with the same size image, headline and summary.

Business Insider

Business Insider made it a point to hammer home that this was a sponsored article, with the disclaimer before the article even starts as well as the "SPONSOR CONTENT" label above the article. Sure, consumers may still gloss over both points, but Business Insider is doing their best to inform their readers that they don't necessarily endorse the content—and that they didn't produce it—even if it is on their site.

Business Insider Native Advertising

The Pros of Native Advertising

Native advertising is more effective than standard online ads, producing a higher clickthrough rate and more engagement. Consumers are also usually more satisfied after reading a native ad article, even though they're duped. The content is still so similar to the standard content on the site, the reader is getting exactly what he/she was coming to the site for, it's just a matter of who is delivering the content.

More engagement and a higher clickthrough rate obviously lead to more money for the advertisers, which is what it's all about, isn't it? Companies have been struggling since the dawn of the Internet to find out how to make money from online advertising and native ads present a surefire way to do so.

As more and more newspapers around the country fail to keep their readers engaged with print copy and more and more readers get their news online, any way to make more money from web ads is a great thing. Given most consumers refuse to pay for their news, native ads are a nice way to bridge the gap and create some income for online companies/outlets.

We talked with Jason Hawkins, President of No Risk SEO, who added, “There's also a nice, natural tie between native ads and social media ads. If you think about it, any Tweet or Facebook post that shows up on a user's timeline is a native ad in and of itself. It blends in with the surroundings and can carry a larger impact than ads on the sides or banners of such social media sites.”

The Cons of Native Advertising

Well, for one, it's pretty deceptive. The whole general idea is to deceive the consumer and make them believe they are seeing standard content for the site they are on. Consumers can't tell the difference. That's the point, however. The ads are supposed to blend in, to appear as news stories or original web pages, etc. But that can also mean that even if people are clicking and the ads have more engagement, it won't necessarily head down the path of more leads for some businesses.

A lot of consumers may either be unhappy they were duped, or simply not want to move forward with a company that duped them, even if they were fine with the actual ad itself. Native ads don't foster much in the way of trust and honesty between the consumer, the outlet and the advertising company.

The most successful native ads need to have a clear indication that they are, in fact, advertisements. The more there is to prevent the consumer from feeling duped, the better. Native ads need to be clearly marked and transparent to be at their most effective.

Now what?

At the end of the day, native advertising is definitely controversial, but it's probably not worthy of the "shady" label, especially if used properly. The "controversy" surrounding native advertising may not go anywhere anytime soon, but if you use it do it correctly and cautiously, it can be effective. In fact, as CopyPress says, native advertising "is supposed to be THE way of advertising by 2016.” The more consumers become accustomed to native ads, the more they will wise up to what is an ad and what is actual content, lessening the feeling of being duped or tricked.

How have you experienced native advertising? Despite its advantages, do you still see it as a "shady" practice? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Sergio Aicardi is the owner of The Miami SEO Company and lives in sunny South Florida. He offers consulting to many marketing companies in Miami and business owners alike. His responsibilities include developing business relationships and optimizing internal processes to ensure the business is constantly growing, while constantly enhancing the quality of services rendered.
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