We Need a Better Definition of "Native Advertising"

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What is "native advertising"?

If you’re looking for marketing jargon in 2013, look no further than "native advertising." Brands, media companies and marketing agencies are jumping on the native advertising bandwagon faster than you can say, "what ever happened to Pinterest being the next big thing?" But there’s a debate about just what, exactly, the advertising industry means by "native advertising." Many believe that native advertising is just a digital euphemism for the classic advertorial that would frequently fill a page in your local newspaper or national magazine — only with less of a wall between the traditional church-and-state structure of editorial and advertising (like when The Atlantic ran a subtly flagged advertorial for The Church of Scientology). Others will say that "native advertising’ is advertising that is unique to a specific channel (like when BuzzFeed works with an advertiser to create a piece of content that will only run on BuzzFeed) or it could even be platform-wide (let’s say AOL runs sponsored content across many of their channels, from Huffington Post and TechCrunch to Patch).

No wonder flailing publishers like "native advertising" — they can make it mean whatever they want it to mean!

In 1996, the IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) was founded with a core belief that if media and advertising standards were not put in place, the online advertising medium could never mature and capture a brand’s advertising spend. Unlike traditional media (which had established formats and specifications across the multiple channels), every web page could be a media company unto itself with different advertising specifications and measurements in place. The Wild West that was the Web back in the nineties would be equally wild for advertising. Beyond best practices, research, education and advocacy, the IAB managed to achieve a common ground in the area of creative standards and measurement guidelines, but this could all go away if marketing professionals can’t agree on a clear definition for "native advertising."

We do need a unified definition here.

Not to sound alarmist, but if there is not a consistent definition (that includes both the technical format along with the content that is embedded within in), the confusion will cause challenges in the growth of online advertising. The industry will revert back to a time and place when publishers could create complex and chaotic environments for advertisers. If every piece of digital creative must now become unique (from the technical to the content), brands are going to struggle with everything from ideation and production to comparable measurement models. So let’s try to define it. The divergent definitions above all confuse the unique format (size and technical specifications) of the ad placement with the content (the creative that is placed within that format). I define native advertising as an ad format that must be created specifically for one media channel in terms of the technical format and the content (both must be native to the channel on which they appear and unable to be used in another context). For example, you can’t place a Google AdWords campaign on The New York Times‘ website and you can’t run a promoted tweet on Huffington Post. The advertising that you buy from Google to run on their search engine (or network) is unique (or, native, if you will) to their platform, much in the same way that promoted tweets on Twitter were created and can only be run on Twitter. The advertising formats and the content within them are native to the environment.

So does this mean than any ad is a native ad?

If you ran a Super Bowl ad, wasn’t that native to the Super Bowl… or native to TV? Not really. Television ads are traditionally shot the same way. An ad on the Super Bowl could be shown on Storage Wars and nothing would need to be changed. The formats are consistent. The advertising content just happens to be tailored for the big football game, but the format is ubiquitous across the entire television medium. For example, The Atlantic also ran an editorial piece titled, Where Design Meets Technology, that was sponsored by Porsche. That was lauded in the media as an attempt to drive native advertising. According to Digiday, the 155-year-old-publication feels that advertising which has the "look and feel of The Atlantic’s content… help[s] brands create and distribute engaging content by making the ads linkable, sharable and discoverable." Does this sponsored post truly feel like native advertising? What makes this native to The Atlantic? Is it simply the fact that The Atlantic’s editorial team created and curated the content with Porsche’s approval? Could Porsche and their media company not ask to sponsor content on any number of other online publishing platforms? Ultimately, I would argue that this was not native advertising, but simply good content marketing or sponsored content that didn’t smell like pure advertorial.

The current state of online advertising is about to hit a tipping point.

Last month’s MediaPost headline says it all: Online Poised To Break 25% Budget Milestone, Mobile Fueling Half Its Growth. With this growth, interest in and confusion over native advertising is likely to grow. Advertising, as we have traditionally defined it, continues to morph as traditional publishers attempt to figure out their digital monetization models. The complexity is only enhanced as the traditional advertising formats in the online channel (namely banner ads or display advertising) continue to provide weaker results to advertisers. Until we get a better handle on the definition of native advertising and the standardized formats digital ads can take, brands and publishers will continue to go through the standard growing pains when new opportunities and nomenclature enters the fray. (Just look to that much-ridiculed Scientology piece on The Atlantic as an example.)

The charm of traditional advertising was in cost and efficacy.

One ad could be produced and — with minor adaptation — pumped into a handful of media channels with enough repetition to create awareness and interest to buy. If advertisers are going to have to create unique formats mixed with unique content for each and every different channel and platform, it’s going to massively affect not only budgets and timelines, but also a brand’s ability to get their message out to a larger audience in the same way that they used to. The somewhat ironic irritant here is that marketers know and understand that the best kind of advertising is when the message feels unique and highly personalized to both the consumer and how the ad is placed within the context of the media channels. The industry is talking about native advertising as if it is something new. Google AdWords is native advertising. Promoted tweets on Twitter is native advertising. Buying reach on Facebook‘s newsfeed/timeline is native advertising. Everything else just feels like sponsored content or an advertorial in sheep’s clothing. Native advertising can’t just be about the creative that fills an advertising space. Native advertising must be intrinsically connected to the format that fits the user’s unique experience. There’s something philosophically beautiful about that in terms of what great advertising should (and could) be.

But first, we need to all speak the same language around "native advertising." The future of paid advertising depends on it.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Harvard Business Review. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here: