The Natives are Getting Restless

This article originally appeared on AllThingsD on April 19, 2013.

If you ask 10 marketers for a definition of “native advertising,” you are likely to get 10 different answers. While the concept is as old as advertising itself, what’s old is new again online and it seems everyone is rushing to redefine what it means to be native. As the river of venture capital dollars increasingly flows toward this buzzy new category, marketing platforms of all shapes and sizes are reaching out hoping to claim their seat on the raft. In many ways, the weeding-out process has already begun, and we’re seeing the offerings that facilitate real reader engagement rise to the top. Still, it’s worth looking at what makes them successful, and, ultimately, what it really takes to be native.

Our friends at Solve Media wrote a thoughtful white paper on this topic, and I’ve combined some of their thinking with my own ideas in order to come up with a holistic definition of native advertising. Here are the five criteria any true native ad should meet:

  • Non interruptive — Doesn’t interrupt the user flow and fits seamlessly into the experience
  • In Stream and Contextual — Complements, rather than competes with, the content around it
  • Preserves Trust — Engenders trust by delivering value as opposed to employing deceptive marketing tricks
  • Maintains Brand Integrity — Takes the long view to craft and communicate a brand’s story authentically
  • Adds Value — Supplements the experience by either entertaining, informing or engaging
The reality is that very few online marketing platforms — including many that stake a claim to being native — pass even the first test of the gauntlet by delivering a message without interrupting the user. Dan Greenberg of Sharethrough has written frequently as one of the leading proponents of native advertising. He alludes to “strategies built upon twin pillars of content and choice versus banners and interruption,” citing Sponsored Stories on Facebook and Promoted Tweets on Twitter as innovative in this regard. I disagree. The sponsored stories that appear in my Facebook News Feed usually don’t qualify as content, are rarely useful and frequently interrupt.
Promoted tweets aren’t much better — almost always promotional, thick with branding and rarely appearing as if they belong in my stream. And neither product offers “choice,” a key ingredient in establishing trust. Sponsored stories cannot be hidden like other stories that appear in the News Feed, and nothing can be edited out of your Twitter stream. Neither platform offers much choice, and in Facebook’s case, there’s less choice than users are otherwise accustomed to having.
When considering all five criteria, it turns out that content as a medium for delivering a brand’s message may be the only pure-play way to achieve them all. Good content doesn’t interrupt. In fact, it does the opposite, drawing you into a plot. It delivers value through entertainment, education, or some combination of both. Working our way down the list into the more nuanced characteristics, content can organically appear in places where it feels natural to discover. By entertaining or educating the reader and avoiding being overly promotional, it’s easy to engender reader trust. And it’s a natural way to tell a story.

There are several platforms innovating around delivering native advertising through content today, but they vary in purity based on the above criteria:


The Atlantic produces some of the highest quality content of any publisher in business today. While they received their fair share of criticism for the Church of Scientology debacle, they have an enormous opportunity if they can retain their high standard of quality across their sponsored stories. This will be their challenge.

Combining branded sponsorship with viral content as well as anyone, BuzzFeed is setting a new standard for content marketing. Context of sponsorships and brand adjacency questions may pose longer-term challenges.

Forbes’ Brand Voices is innovative and shows enormous potential as a content marketing platform for brands to communicate directly with customers. Worth mentioning, their use of frequent homepage takeovers and uninitiated pre-rolls feels disingenuous with native aspirations.


Aiming to build a native ad network, Sharethrough is setting a super high standard for ad quality, and it shows. The line between content and advertising can be easily blurred, though, and both interruptive-ness and context are open questions with their offering.

While Solve Media’s captcha replacements are a big improvement from the status quo and an attractive opportunity for brands, prompting a user to engage in a type-in exercise is almost always interruptive from any activity in which they were previously engaged.

Outbrain drives discovery of article and video content through personalized recommendations that appear in the footer of online article pages. Maintaining quality has been a challenge as marketers have tried to use it as a platform to distribute spammy content.

Committing to native is a tricky business, and there are more than a few traps and temptations lurking around the bend. Several content recommendation “imitators” have arrived on the scene over the past year, perhaps underestimating the importance of efficient targeting and high quality content to engender the reader trust that differentiates these offerings. Without that trust, these lookalikes will eventually revert to the least common denominator and become just another ad network, albeit one disguised as content.

“The natives are getting restless” are words originally uttered by Dr. Moreau in the 1933 sci-fi horror film, “The Island of Lost Souls.” However, the “natives” in question weren’t natives at all, but rather the human/animal hybrid results of Dr. Moreau’s experiments. Similarly, most online advertising platforms claiming inclusion in the native family today aren’t native at all, bearing only one or two elements of the full scope, therefore being hybrid experiments. Those platforms that do meet the full standard are in prime position to capture mindshare by delivering authentic experiences and offering brands new and unique ways to reach their audiences.

Josh Guttman is a Senior Vice President at Outbrain, a content discovery platform. Follow him on Twitter at @JGut.