Native language

On the face of it, native advertising could be passed off as just a modern day version of print advertorial. But look a little deeper and it’s clear that this new content-shaped advertising approach represents the beginnings of an unavoidable evolution in how advertisers communicate with consumers. The birth of native ads is an important landmark, it signals that advertisers are finally recognising that social media has irreversibly changed how consumers interact with brands and how the web has in many ways shifted control of the conversation back into the hands of consumers.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that people are now pretty much blind to standard display advertising. People are flooded with marketing messages every second they are online and have a seemingly bottomless pit of information at their fingertips. So when it comes to engaging with online content, especially brand or advertising messages, if they don’t see it as hyper-relevant to them at that moment and providing them with some kind of value, they simply keep scrolling. Their first question is always ‘what’s in it for me’?  

The web, and specifically social, has also muddied the waters when it comes to marketing and advertising strategies. Marketers can no longer place their content into neat little boxes labelled ‘PR’, ‘advert’ or ‘blog’. Often the best campaigns are driven by content that can happily straddle all of those brackets and more simultaneously. Through the eyes of the recipient there are really only two types of brand content – good and bad.

On the flipside, the programmatic technology behind native ad platforms offers huge potential for targeting content to consumers based on interests and online behaviour, which makes reaching the right people with your message a lot more efficient and reduces irrelevancy for the audience.

Another key driver for the proliferation of native ads has been the rise of mobile, especially when it comes to social media. Most mobile-optimised sites and especially social apps are now one column, leaving minimal real estate for standard advertising units. This has represented a real challenge for social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, whose traffic is primarily via mobile and they are ultimately reliant on advertising to survive. This challenge has meant that social platforms have, until recently, been streaks ahead (of even Google) in developing mobile ad formats – leading to the arrival of ‘in-stream’ paid-for content across Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. Or in other words – native advertising.

Seeking attention

Brands are now competing in-stream against content not just from competitors and media publishers, but the friends of their target audience. This means that for a brand to avoid their message disappearing from view in under a second, they need ‘thumb stop’ content that will stop the audience in their tracks.

Google acknowledges this behavioural shift in the way that people are consuming digital content. It wants advertising to be seamless part of the experience, not a distraction (hence better quality score for advertisers who achieve this), a view now reflected by IAB.

Research shows currently that people are not phased by native ads – unsurprisingly they respond better to content that is genuinely interesting and relevant,  rather than a promotional message.

Publishers are also moving to the native ad model because it offers a better revenue stream, as well as offering an improved reader experience.  Many are developing their own platforms so that they can maximise revenue and have complete control over that user experience.

The rise of Buzzfeed is a great example of this new model in action. Synonymous with content that ‘goes viral’ this site represents the bleeding edge of how consumers now engage with online content and how this behaviour can be monetised. With only 550 employees driving a site that has 150 million unique monthly visitors and revenue spanning into triple digit millions, Buzzfeed’s advertising content is almost indistinguishable from its editorial counterpart, blending insipidly into the feed and generating just as much engagement. Their approach seems to be working so far, with content (paid or not) being read and shared, and a significant chunk of the publisher’s revenue earned from producing such content for household brands like Starbucks and Pepsi.

Noisy times

Whilst all signs point to this shift in advertising approach becoming mainstream in the next few years, there is a greater concern for marketers – content fatigue.  With such an overwhelming stream of information being pushed to them across multiple devices and touchpoints, time-poor audiences are frequently ignoring or dismissing large chunks of content – which may well contain some hugely relevant items – because there is simply too much of it.  The sharing and borderline spamming culture that has developed among social media users and marketers has even sparked the emergence of an ‘anti’ culture. ‘This’ was launched last year – a social app that only allows users to share one link a day.  The thinking behind ‘This’ is that it encourages brevity and higher quality link sharing – forcing the community to think in detail about what it is they are sharing each day and why.

Facebook’s increasingly draconian algorithm updates could indicate that we may have already started to reach content saturation point, so in order to avoid the law of diminishing returns as native ads increase in volume and extend across more digital channels, it will become critical for marketers to be continuously testing and optimising content for best response, as well as sustaining creative innovation.

No ‘i’ in team

What does this mean for the future of social media?  Will it all eventually become paid-for content for brands? Will there be a backlash that spurs the birth of more ad-free social platforms like Ello that begin to steal users from the likes of Facebook? Or will the new generation of web users simply take for granted that their friend networks include people they know, and brands?

I believe that any or indeed all of these scenarios are possible, and it will be interesting to see how the marketing and advertising industry responds to this fuzzy new world of paid-for content. As happened after the emergence of social media, with such an overlap between the different disciplines of marketing, PR, creative content and advertising it’s likely that there will be a fair amount of tussle for ownership of the native advertising process. But ultimately the best campaigns will achieve success through industry collaboration and combined strength of expertise. One thing’s for sure – native advertising is a sea-change which will continue to shape digital marketing for years to come.

Alexei Lee

Alexei Lee


Alexei Lee is Head of Social Media and Promotion at Strategy Digital.