Lately, it seems as if nearly the entire publishing world has gone native.  The majority of online publishers, including prestigious news sites like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, now offer native advertising options. Lately, it seems as if nearly the entire publishing world has gone native.  The majority of online publishers, including prestigious news sites like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, now offer native advertising options. 

But just last year, these large players were sitting on the sidelines.  How did we move from a select few publishers offering native opportunities to widespread, enthusiastic adoption? Let’s explore.    

What is native advertising?
Last year, IAB created a Native Advertising Taskforce to help create guidelines for the industry and released the Native Advertising Playbook in December 2013, corroborating the new industry’s growing position in the market.  It’s taken some time for the industry to settle on a definition, but it’s now widely agreed that native advertising mimics the design and functionality of the website around it and includes in-feed ads, search and promoted listings, content recommendation widgets and custom ad units.     

Native ads blend in with their surroundings—a poignant departure from interruptive advertising.  At first, publishers and readers feared that these ads were simply sneakier—wolves in sheep’s clothing, if you will—but many marketers attest that effective native advertising must offer something of value to the audience, much like content marketing (and there’s certainly overlap).  That’s not a prerequisite, though, and as of now, a native ad is simply one that mirrors the look and feel of the environment that hosts it.

So what was the hold up?
The editorial teams at many publishing houses were hesitant to “go native” for understandable reasons.  Editors were nervous about maintaining a clear delineation between content and advertising and didn’t want to mislead readers or lose their trust.  How would readers react?  Many also had operational concerns.  Would advertisers be given access to the newsroom’s content management system?  Who would be creating, editing and inputting these ads, and were they scalable?  Likely, many of the big players were also strategically waiting and watching to see how other publishers fared, and to see the IAB’s stance on the industry.   

But money talks, and brands have power.  Among those who have jumped on the native bandwagon are some big ad spenders, including GE and Dell.  Native advertising spending is expected to almost double, from $1.6 billion in 2012 to $2.85 billion in 2014, according to eMarketer.  Marketers see native advertising as an effective means for reaching an audience equipped with more ways of avoiding advertising than ever before.  Publishers want a piece of that pie, and they see it as a way to combat declining print revenues and jumpstart digital ad revenues that aren’t growing fast enough.  Now 73 percent of publishers offer native advertising in the U.S., according to eMarketer.  For most publishers, transparency is paramount, and both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been quick to emphasize that their strategies will include clear, consistent labeling.  No one wants another scandal like The Atlantic’s misstep in January 2013, when the magazine ran a sponsored post that was nothing more than an infomercial for the Church of Scientology.  (The publisher quickly apologized and ended the campaign.)   

Where’s content marketing fit in?
Mediaplanet believes that brands truly are industry experts and have unique standing to comment on a slew of compelling and relevant issues.  Well-executed sponsored articles position brands as thought leaders and raise credibility, as long as the content isn’t overly self-promotional.  There’s a place for advertorials and we understand their value, but they tend to be one-way conversations, rarely engaging or shareable.  What’s the point of the content, though, if it’s not delivering on a clear marketing value?  We allow our clients to run banner ads alongside the relevant content, ensuring we maintain readers’ trust and deliver for our advertising partners. 

Content marketing is the practice of creating and distributing high-quality content with a marketing objective, regardless of where it is distributed.  If a well-done sponsored article is distributed via a native advertising opportunity, it’s an example of both content marketing and native advertising.  But not all native ads are adhering to this same level of quality, and of course, not all content marketing campaigns will be distributed via native ads.  We believe the brands getting the most value from native ads are the brands playing by the content marketing rulebook and investing in content that brings real value to the reader.

Native advertising is on the rise because it works and because traditional marketing tactics increasingly don’t.  We offer native advertising opportunities in some markets and use native tactics, including native social opportunities and content recommendation widgets, to drive readers to our sites.  We believe the future of native advertising is bright, as long as publishers and marketers remain focused on transparency and quality.  If not, readers will learn to tune out native ads the same way they do irrelevant banner ads.