What is native advertising? It’s a paid-for piece of content designed to match the existing content of a site. The best native serves two parties well, delivering awareness to a brand and revenue to a publisher. The worst feels sneaky, turns people off and can harm ranking and relevance scores. And who needs that.

There will always be people who hear the word “advertising” and instantly recoil in fear. The somewhat allergic reaction to feeling “sold to” is real and harks back to the pre-DVR days when we were forced to watch incessant commercials.

But the art of delivering messages people actually want to consume has come a long way since ad blockers were invented. Brands and advertisers have figured out how to deliver better experiences using the internet’s powers for good. The results are far better than your parents’ newspaper “advertorial” that readers learned to tune out years ago.

Understanding native advertising

Usefulness has been achieved with the best native ads drawing people in, regardless of whether content is sponsored or not. And given this type of digital advertising matches the form, feel, and function of the site in which it appears (hence how “native” got its name), native ads have only gotten stronger by the day, becoming infinitely more likely to be viewed versus traditional display ads.

The best of it is informative and educational — other kinds are simply innovative and cool. Sometimes it’s both.

the difference between a native campaign that falls flat and one that can over-perform for its advertiser, bringing much gratitude to the team, thanks to impressive share rates.

It’s time to understand the difference.

[Please note: For the purposes of this article, I am focusing on native advertising as it pertains primarily to written content. In-feed social posts, recommendation widgets and paid-search ads have been considered by some to be a type of native advertising.]

5 do’s for producing potent native advertising

5 do’s for producing potent native advertising

1. Do find the right place for it.

If you’re an advertiser, the best way to think about your native advertising is to think about the publisher or outlet that is the best cultural fit for your brand, customer and product. Ask yourself:  Of all the sites/platforms out there, which is most likely to deliver the audience that currently is — or could be — my customer? Consider a few factors before you get started:

  • Know your audience — and theirs: Whether you’re selling a mattress or energy drink, think about who you’re trying to reach first and foremost. Do these people sleep on buying decisions or are they aggro in their consumption habits?
  • Understand how they consume content. Does your audience watch a lot of video content, are they avid readers or do they spend their days and night on social? This will inform who you should target, how, and in which format.
  • Look at the success of previous campaigns. If past behavior is truly the best indicator of the future, do some research to see who’s succeeded at creating, promoting and winning acclaim for their native campaigns in the past.

If you have an advertising or media agency that handles your business in this regard, they might make these decisions for you. However, it’s also something you should understand as the advertiser — because, at the end of the day, it’s your money and you don’t want to miss the target.

2. Create a concept that’s fun, unique or entirely unexpected.

Here’s the hardest part and where native superstars earn their keep: know that defining the right piece of native isn’t as simple as just concocting a headline and writing an article with subheads, bullet points, and listicles. That worked for some channels like Buzzfeed for a time, who made bank doing listicles early on — but that’s not the high-minded ideal to shoot for.

Having a talented partner who knows what works for their audience will be the difference between doing a written piece — and something more ambitious like “Spring Reboot” from Apartment Therapy. Ultimately, this interactive visualization tool was “Sponsored By” Home Depot and worked as a type of native with videos and product recommendations.

Native advertising example on Apartment Therapy

Similarly, if you look at the Netflix ‘Orange Is the New Black’ native example presented earlier, the creators resolved the best route was to do a journalistic deep dive into what it’s like to be a woman in prison, a story that itself could appear in The New York Times. Ultimately, this native experience was filled with rich nuggets of information surrounding female incarceration (animations, shocking statistics, video interviews with former inmates, etc.) that were directly in line with the show’s concept.

3. Offer something of value to the reader and they’ll forget they’re reading an “ad.”

Think about Super Bowl commercials for a second. Every February, people gather for one of America’s biggest pastimes: watching and judging the year’s best brand commercials with a little bit of football sprinkled in between.

These are 30- and 60-second commercials that yes, get produced using hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. But they also speak to the first rule of advertising, whether it’s native or otherwise: reward the audience for their time by giving them something that stimulates them. Be it entertainment, artistry, education or something they can use upon takeaway.

But how do you do this? Consider this in your approach:

  • Make high-quality content — and keep the writing fresh: Yes, it’s an ad, but ditch the sales-speak. The best way to write anything in the ’20’s is to understand how people talk and the cultural connection points that bring us together.
  • Give it to ’em the way they want it. Whether it’s a native piece or a clever social campaign, knowing how your customers consume content is of the utmost importance. This will inform not just the content, but the design as well.
  • Know what your audience needs to take away. At the end of the day, you’re creating awareness, if not a call-to-action, to make some kind of purchase. That’s your reason for being, your end game if you will — so don’t forget it.

A great example of this is the native content collaboration from the New York Times and Allbirds shoes, which counts conscious commerce amongst the things they stand for. That was the angle for their “Why Our Future May Depend on the Fate of Birds” site — complete with its soundtrack of birds whistling.

It shed light on a topic few probably considered before that: how birds are connected to the future of the planet. As the company Cyberclick (that actually created an ebook on native advertising) reveals about the craft: “Native content needs to align with your brand, but not be about your brand.”

Native advertising example on The New York Times

4. Keep the quality at least equal to the content on that media platform.

The goal for any native play is to be at least as compelling as the other content that lives on the site already. In some cases, media outlets will use writers from other non-advertising beats to produce their native advertising. They do it because they already know the voice and tone of the platform, so the native is a seamless transition — not a speed bump on the way to Sleepsville. Other times, writers might object to writing native articles because they feel it could tarnish their reputation in their journalistic field, so there are people (like myself) who specialize in writing native advertising pieces for companies.

At Uproxx and BroBible, we almost always used writers on staff to create our native advertising. It eliminated the learning curve and one of the more time-consuming parts of the process: the finding/hiring phase. Having said that, places like ClearVoice have made it much easier to find talent that can come through if that talent doesn’t exist within your four walls.

5. Going the extra yard can hatch genuine appreciation from your audience.

There’s nothing greater than creating a piece of native that your audience swallows whole without having to pay out the nose to promote it.

Back in my Uproxx days, we were approached by TBS about creating a campaign to promote their comedy series ‘Wrecked’ — about a group of millennials who end up stranded on a desert island. It was sort of like ‘Lost’ meets ‘Airplane.’ It’s a concept few in the world could ever relate to — but I found someone who could speak to this experience firsthand: Lucy Irvine. She lived alone on a desert island back in the 1980s with a man and lived to write a book about it called ‘Castaway.’ We pitched the idea, which TBS bought, and then I interviewed her by phone from across the world about her observations so our millennial-minded audience could cultivate an interest. The article got shared 6,100 times in the first few weeks it was up.

Viral activity: the holy grail of native advertising.

Native advertising example by Uproxx


5 don’ts for producing native advertising

5 don’ts for producing native advertising

1. Don’t forget to tag the content as “Sponsored,” “Brought to You By” or “#Ad”

It might be tempting to pass off your native content as organic on the channel in which it is appearing. After all, if people think the publisher covered this topic organically, the thought is that it will perform better. Don’t. Not only can this be seen as crossing the line in terms of ethics, but it’s also against guidelines from the FTC, who fine publishers and brands for it. Your job in producing native is not to land in legal hot water. Creating attention is great — but not from the government.

2. Don’t use traditional ad copy — simply in a longer form.

The point of native advertising is to mimic the editorial voice and tone of the site on which it’s appearing. So, don’t default to traditional ad-speak norms to do it. At best, people will tune it out. At worst, people will hold it against you when it comes to reading other content you’re behind, branded or otherwise. This could ding a site’s traffic, relevance scores and reputation.

3. Don’t cross-shop native plays based on cost alone.

Native advertising plays can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000, depending on the ambitiousness of the effort, so there may be a temptation to cross-shop based on price exclusively. It’s not the way to go. What you want to do is first figure out the best place for your native given who you’re advertising to. Then, approach costs. If it’s still too expensive, perhaps the media outlet or publisher can give you a discount in order to win favor with you for future creative collaborations.

4. Don’t just build it and hope they’ll come.

Contrary to the great line from legendary baseball film ‘Field of Dreams,’ just because you build it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come. When you launch a piece of native, how it’s promoted is key. It’s a detail that will generally be included in the native advertising deal that gets done. However, based on the impressions you’re being promised, you will want to be keyed into what the promotion strategy will be. An experienced sales team will present those numbers upfront with guarantees. That’s where it helps to understand what channels it will be splayed across, the type of targeting used and analytics provided.

5. Don’t be afraid to take chances.

The best native advertising surprises the reader who opts in because the content itself simply wins them over. In this regard, you shouldn’t be afraid to take chances with how you’re going to grab people’s attention and not let go. In this regard, here are three examples I either conceived or produced that ultimately delivered on unexpected and over-performed because of it:

  • “Kittens Vs. Thugs” staring contest for Warner Bros: This was an idea I hatched during a brainstorm where some of the cutest kittens you’ll ever see squared off against some of the toughest men you’ll ever lay eyes on. I didn’t think anyone would go for it, but WB did and the scriptwriter ultimately nailed it. So did Key & Peele, who narrated it.
  • A game of H-O-R-S-E vs. the shortest player in NBA history for AXE Body Wash: They were launching a new ad campaign with NBA legend Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and I thought: What kind of article will our audience actually read? We pitched the idea to AXE and got approval from Muggsy’s camp to do it. The results became the actual native piece.
  • Skid Robot feature for Miller Lite: This was an investigative video piece I was working on for Uproxx. The concept involved featuring a masked street artist in Los Angeles named Skid Robot who raised awareness of homeless encampments by tagging beautiful art pieces around their “homes” near Skid Row. We were simultaneously pitching Miller Lite ideas for a native campaign featuring inspiring and impressive people. They loved the idea and green-lit it.

By tying into social justice, aligning the advertiser with a cause and giving our audience a piece of native that would entertain and inform them like an actual news story, it was win-win-win. The fact that it was sponsored content was just a moot point. And isn’t that the point at the end of the day?

Now, what’s your win-win-win?