Is this an ad or the header, or both?

Native Advertising Shows Media Companies How They Can Thrive

In the most superficial sense, “native advertising” is advertising that is designed to look like everything else on a Web page or in a print publication. The gold standard of native advertising is content that serves the aims of both marketers and editorialists, and that also pleases judicious consumers.

Given that digitally savvy consumers are becoming increasingly resistant to the hard sell and increasingly unwilling to follow pop-up and banner ads to their intended destinations, native advertising represents a holy grail of sorts — not only for marketers but also for publishers that are looking for innovative ways to fund their operations.

“Disclosure, transparency, and trust are non-negotiable.”

Britton Marketing & Design Group addressed the perks, pitfalls and permutations of native advertising in June 2015.

The Evolution of Native Advertising

In a way, the development of native advertising is part of a natural progression. Ad-blocking software is troubling for marketers and websites, but it’s really just one of many attempts by consumers to interrupt the interruptions.

The interruptive advertising model has been around for a long time, and it has been fading away for a long time. Interruptive advertising is almost as old as the Industrial Revolution. Advertisements have dependably interrupted people’s reading of magazines and newspapers since the mid-19th century.


In the mid-1950s, television networks began to loosely imitate the sequence of advertisements and editorial content in magazines. Commercial breaks started interrupting programming. Twenty years later, efforts by TV watchers to skip commercials were given a big boost when the first home VCRs were made widely available. Electronic recording devices like TiVo, introduced in 1999, only made avoiding commercials easier. TV-based contraptions like TiVo begat ad-blocking software for computers.

Dan Greenberg, founder of the native advertising software firm Sharethrough, told that native advertising is about “preserving publishing with ad models that are built on foundations that will last instead of forced engagement and interruption.

“Traditional ads were built on the premise of interruption, where you can steal someone’s time and show them your ad. It works on TV, but there’s a world of people who are uninterruptable. If you can’t force people to pay attention to your brand, you need to earn it.”

Sponsored-Content Misconceptions

In the previous blog post, we looked at major native-advertising successes and resounding failures. It may be that all the ways native ads go wrong can be boiled down to two mistakes made by the advertiser-publisher partnership.

The first is failure to provide value. If a piece of native advertising is more concerned with flattering the advertiser than it is with providing the reader or viewer with usable or genuinely entertaining content, then potential customers might feel duped. The second mistake is to proceed on the assumption that native advertising must, in whole or in part, involve trickery. Trying to hide or obscure the fact that an article or a list is a piece of sponsored content only angers the people who figure out its true nature all too easily.

Native Ads on Buzzfeed

Addressing a disastrous puff piece that the Atlantic published about Scientology leader David Miscavige, marketing analyst Rebecca Lieb wrote, “What’s a best practice in this area?

“Disclosure, transparency, and trust are non-negotiable. Period. And come on, we’ve danced this dance more than once: With search engine advertising, paid blogging, and word-of-mouth marketing. Do we really even need to have this conversation? Disclose to readers that it’s a paid placement. Link to the relevant editorial policy. Create a channel for inquiry.”

The best native ads deliver on promises of humor or pith while drawing subtle attention to brands.

According to Lieb, for a piece of native advertising to be successful, it can contain no element of conversion: “By ‘conversion,’ I mean there’s no desired action for the consumer to take (e.g., visit a landing page, click something, download something, fill out a form — anything).”

Not everyone feels as strongly as Lieb about conversion, but one can certainly imagine a scenario in which a reader feels betrayed after he is asked to jump from sponsored content to an advertiser’s website, where an inevitably harder sell awaits.

Native in Name Only

When native advertising fails, some marketing professionals want to blame the concept as a whole. Lou Hoffman of the Hoffman Agency wrote on that the problem with most native advertising is that it is not truly native or any good. It is Hoffman’s belief that a lot of native advertising manages to be just as interruptive as less subtle types of online advertising.

The Onion is one of the few media entities that can make fun of the idea of sponsored content while enthusiastically participating in it.

He used as an example a piece of car-company-sponsored content that appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports page.

While many sports fans are also car aficionados, it is a stretch to claim that car-related content is native to a sports page. And the eventual advertorial is merely a glorified car commercial, Hoffman wrote. “The San Francisco Chronicle would never assign this story to a reporter,” he explained, “and the content clashes with the natural story flow.”

The Best of Native Advertising in 2015

For dependably good examples of native advertisements, many people look to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed may not have invented the form, but it has consistently shown others how it’s done. In 2015, it continued to provide examples that others may wish to emulate, including a list of things that twentysomethings have to give up as they age, sponsored by TV Land, and 14 gardening hacks, sponsored by Miracle-Gro. The former provided humor and nostalgic touch points, and the latter provided earnest gardening information.

Another website that seems to seamlessly integrate native advertising into its editorial ethos is the satirical newspaper The Onion. In March came a barroom spoof sponsored by the malt-beverage company Four Loko. The product is never mentioned in the editorial copy, and the article is virtually indistinguishable in form and substance from other Onion content.

In April, the site published a mustache send-up sponsored by Schick that was similarly well melded with everything else The Onion does. When The Onion links to native advertising on its Facebook page, it adds the following identifying header: “There is a stone where our soul once was. Enjoy this sponsored content.” The Onion is one of the few media entities that can make fun of the idea of sponsored content while enthusiastically participating in it.

Other notable examples of native ads from 2015 include Forbes and Toyota teaming up to look at historical turning points, Netflix and the Wall Street Journaljoining forces to examine the economics of the illegal drug trade, and Mashable and Marvel Entertainment Group collaborating on a fake news story tied into the plot of the movie Ant-Man.

No Shortcuts to Native

Many of the aforementioned instances of native advertising have different tones and goals, but they all have one thing in common: They don’t insult their intended audiences. They deliver on promises of humor or pith while drawing subtle attention to brands. Most potential customers will embrace native advertising that has real value and is honestly presented.

Steve Penhollow
Freelance Contributor

Britton Marketing & Design Group

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Photos/Screenshots: The Onion, BuzzFeed and