Successful Native Advertising is Visible, Engaging, and Honest


By: Katherine Khorey

“Native advertising”, or “native or sponsored content”, is not a new concept in marketing. But today’s blur between the roles of content publishers and advertisers in the digital space make it newly crucial for marketers to manage this content successfully.

Native content is branded content designed to blend into a publisher’s platform. The social news website Buzzfeed is one of the most successful online publishers to seamlessly integrate ads into its content. A recent example is a checklist of what new fathers need to prepare for their upcoming role. While written in Buzzfeed’s signature list-style, the article is sponsored by advertiser Geico. Geico’s target audience, men at a likely age to become first-time fathers, can enjoy the articles’ tips while growing to rely on the brand to help them “be prepared”.

Buzzfeed is not alone. Other major publishers such as The Onion, Forbes and Vanity Fair have all used editorial content to sell advertising. Given the growing popularity of this tactic, it is important for marketers to inform themselves of the recent studies on “native advertising.” Recent studies provide insight into audience responses to this content that marketers must consider.

The studies suggest that consumers’ age does not necessarily influence their response to “native ads”. Digital “natives” trust media in general less than older audiences do. But neither audience seems to trust sponsored content more or less than any other content online.

Age may not be a relevant factor to how audiences respond to “native advertising”, but the studies indicate that other factors, such as a native ad’s context and the content itself, is crucial to positive audience engagement. Below are action items for marketers to leverage context and content to build audiences’ trust in a brand and create truly valuable native content.

Why Context Matters:

Insight: An audience’s initial level of trust in a digital source is independent of advertising.

A visitor to a website will trust the content on it if he or she already trusts the publisher of that site. Whether the site’s advertising is obvious, such as with a flashing banner or pop-up, or if the advertising blends with surrounding content, like a text or video article produced by the advertiser, the audience’s perception of the site will not be changed. Audiences are accustomed to ads being a natural part of content consumption. When attracting an audience to native advertising, what matters most is if the targeted audience already has a general interest and engagement with the website when they visit.

Action Item 1: Know who your consumer trusts, and leverage that.
Host native ads on sites consumers already trust as information sources. As in traditional advertising, successful native content should be placed on channels where its targeted consumers “hang out.” A March 2015 issue of Forbes provided a strong example when it featured retirement planning advice from Fidelity. Forbes readers would not only be interested in this content, but they would also trust the source from which it came.

Action Item 2: Make sure the channel suits the content, and vice versa.
Successful native content fits in with the channel it is published on. The advertising should enhance the audience experience by adding appropriate value to the website or other venue. It should not detract from the experience with jarringly different tone or content.

An instance of sponsored content whose channel was particularly crucial was FX’s 2014 promotion of its irreverent animated spy comedy Archer. In this case, the channel was mass crowd-sourced content aggregator Reddit, which shared with the show a digitally savvy audience with a generally ironic sense of humor. The posts’ headlines were designed to blend in with surrounding content at first glance. When viewers opened the posts, it became obvious they were sponsored by the show.

The Archer campaign spread by word of mouth throughout Reddit and beyond. This was partly because the content was true to the show’s tone and characters. But crucially, it was also published on a channel whose immediate audience would not be blindsided by the posts’ racy content, and whose secondary audience had an aligned sense of humor.

Clearly, the choice of the Reddit board as a channel was essential to the campaign’s success. If FX had posted the same content in the comments sections of a legacy news source, for example, audiences would read the advertising as spam at best and harassment at worst. While this reaction is an extreme example, the importance of choosing a suitable channel for sponsored content remains.

Content Matters, Too:

Insight: Audiences understand--and appreciate--native content for what it is.

Audiences of all generations recognize that native advertising exists. Often they can identify it whether it’s clearly marked or not. To create native ads that audiences experience as valuable and not distractions, it’s especially important to consider not only where they’re placed, but what they say and how they say it. But if the disrupting content is worthwhile, audiences will probably not mind that it is sponsored. In the most ideal cases, positive perception of the sponsor may even grow.

Action Item 1: Strong content is key.
Even loyal brand customers in the audience won’t appreciate native content for its brand alone. But all audiences may appreciate the brand more for providing informative, entertaining, or engaging content. In the Forbes/Fidelity case, the content was more than an ad that made Fidelity visible to readers. It provided readers something of value--retirement planning advice, presented in a compelling way--in itself.

Action Item 2: Adapt to the space, but don’t hide the brand.
Audiences tend to recognize native advertising for what it is. They can respond equally strongly to ads placed with varying levels of brand visibility. These audiences may appreciate when advertisers acknowledge their digital savvy, and feel inclined to engage with the brand as equal contributors and community members. In the FX/Reddit example, audiences learned quickly that the posts were a sponsored promotion for Archer. But this knowledge helped grow their enthusiasm for the show’s upcoming new season.

Because the content was “in character”, it extended the show’s brand and brought value to the community. Also, Reddit commenters across the site praised not only the campaign’s humor and irony, but its creators’ ingenuity. The fact the message was sponsored was key to the audiences’ appreciation, and could add their enjoyment of the show and respect for its producers. This would not be possible if the brand was hidden on the posts.

Overall, this case indicates marketers can leverage audiences’ recognition of sponsored content to strengthen a brand. Along with genuinely strong content and appropriate context, this can create “native advertising” that is much more valuable than a banner ad.

For further Spiegel insights and actions about engaging consumers in brand experiences, see the Consumer Engagement Engine.

Read more about the studies referenced in this article at:

Good Native Advertising Isn’t a Secret”, by Colin Campbell and Lawrence J. Marks. 

Native Advertising and Digital Natives: The Effect of Age and Advertisement Format on News Website Credibility Judgments” , by Patrick Howe and Brandy Tofel, pg. 78