Is Native Advertising Scalable?

There’s been a lot of discussion about native advertising lately, and an irrefutable rise in its adoption—by brands and publishers alike.  But there’ve also been some misnomers—some debate about what qualifies as native, and if it’s scalable.

Two of digital media’s fastest-growing trends, programmatic and native advertising, seem, at least on some level, contradictory—depending on your definition of native advertising, that is.  Programmatic, the automation of digital ad-sales (click here for a more thorough definition), will reach $4.66 billion this year, a 38.4 percent increase from 2013, according to eMarketer.  By 2017, programmatic could surpass $9 billion.  Native advertising spending is expected to reach $2.85 billion this year, a smaller slice of the pie, no doubt, but you wouldn’t guess it from all the media attention it’s garnering.

Can these trends converge?  That brings us to the first phase of our debate.

How do you define native advertising? 

The IAB’s definition of native advertisements states that they mimic the design and function of their surrounding environments.  Most publishers agree that native advertising must be clearly labeled to avoid reader confusion, although the topic sparked some debate at the recent FDC native advertising workshop.  Most also agree that, official definitions aside, native advertisements should offer readers high quality content.

“It has to match the editorial voice and provide readers with some value.  We talk about this all of the time: infotainment—content has to be informative or entertaining.  If it’s not, it’s not engaging,” says Tessa Gould, director of native advertising & HuffPost Partner Studio, Huffington Post’s native ad products division.  “For brands, native advertising gives them a seat at the table.  They are in-stream and part of the conversation.  When done properly, it even allows them to start the conversation.”

Tessa Gould of The Huffington Post

For some, “properly” is open to interpretation.  For example, does the content have to mirror the tone of the publisher hosting the content?

“Two years ago I would have said yes: if you are buying on HuffPo then it should look, feel and sound like you’re on HuffPo so the users engage with it the same way they would with HuffPo content.  My opinions have changed, though, because now I see the value in reusing content,” says Jarrod Dicker, head of commercial product & operations, RebelMouse and former head of social at Huffington Post, where he helped establish its native advertising division.  “Native advertising has to have a viewpoint and be relevant to the landscape it is trafficked on, but it doesn’t have to be in the exact voice of the publisher it is living on.”

He describes an imminent GE content partnership in which the company partnered with pundits from a host of major publishers, including Slate, NBC, Fox and CNN, to create content that will run on all of the participating news sites.  “If you’re on, all the news will be mostly leaning towards a rightwing, conservative viewpoint, but what’s so cool is that in these GE ad units, you’ll see content with an opposing viewpoint—content from contributors from CNN, NBC and Politico,” he explains, noting that the same holds true for readers of more liberal sites—they’ll get to watch or listen to more conservative views than they’re accustomed to seeing.

Of course, the content also has to have some logical nod back to the brand.  If the high quality content is not intersecting with the brand’s value proposition, what’s the point?  Gould notes this extreme is “far less discussed” than “pluggy” content but may be just as ineffective.  “There are always smart ways to tie in the brand’s marketing objective,” she notes.

Who should create it?

And who should be making those smart tie-ins?  Publishers know their audience best, so it makes sense for them to create native ads for their clients.  But lately, brands have put on that publisher hat with renewed vigor—both out of necessity, as content is integral to connecting with their audience, and because they believe they understand their brand better than anyone else.  But not all brands are GEs.  They’ll need some help creating high quality native advertisements, which brings us to our last point…

Is it scalable? 

“There are companies out there, such as Outbrain, Taboola, Sharethrough and a number of others, who will tell you that native advertising is definitely scalable, and that they have solutions that can help you.  I personally believe that native advertising does not, by definition, scale outside the platform that it is native to,” says Gould.  “It is not a volume play—quality is paramount.  That is part of the reason we decided to roll out an in-house studio in the first place.”

Jarrod Dicker of Rebelmouse

Dicker contends that services like RebelMouse are key to delivering native advertising at scale.  RebelMouse allows brands to deliver content from their social networks into standard IAB ad units in real-time.  “We have allowed brands to take that amazing content they are paying social agencies to create and to use it through programmatic solutions and ad exchanges.  They’re able to take that best-performing content off those social channels and put it in an ad unit which they can now distribute programmatically,” he explains.

That’s certainly scalable, but is it native?  Dicker believes it’s at least effective: “I think that if brands create content that is meaningful and engaging, it will be engaged, shared and read the same way editorial content will be,” he notes.

No one’s arguing that there’s not enough ad dollars to go around.  Huffington Post is predicting double-digit native advertising growth this year and also forecasts an increase in technology-led techniques, such as enhanced targeting and retargeting capabilities and content personalization.  Regardless of how you define it, there’s no doubt that brands and publishers are embracing it in a big way. There are still some kinks to be worked out and forks in the road to be navigated, but there’s no stopping the trend: native advertising’s got legs, and it’s picking up speed.


Want to join the discussion?  Dicker and Gould are both speakers at the upcoming Westchester Digital Summit.  Register today and join your colleagues as they discuss, debate and reflect on the industry’s most pressing issues.

By, Jacqueline Lisk  @JLisk1

Content creation & strategy expert; believer that brand journalism can be high-quality journalism