The Importance of Formats in Native Advertising

As an industry, we’re still having trouble figuring out how to define native advertising, although we all know that it is trending and we all want to grab the most revenue we can from this trend. However, hopping on this trend requires almost an about face on the part of publishers. At first, publishers thought native was the same thing as “advertorial,” — advertising formatted and dressed up to look like editorial. They hated it and looked down on it, and fought for the Chinese wall between the advertising side and the publishing side. But ads you cannot tell apart from editorial is only part of native.

It’s the most familiar part, however, so let’s dispense with it first.  In this context, native can  be sponsored content, which is usually written by the editorial staff of the publication and paid for by a brand, or branded content, which is actually produced by the brand itself or its agency.  Many publications, including the New York Times, Forbes, and Vice, have developed or acquired in-house agencies to produce branded or sponsored content.

This is a huge opportunity for publishers. Now they can be more than creators of content, they can be the creators of ads that support their other content. Which gives them more editorial control than if they simply accepted ads submitted by brands or their outside agencies. It can raise the quality of the creative that appears on their sites, and be more acceptable to their visitors. In June, AOL opened Partner Studio, an in-house creative shop, and Huffpo, owned my AOL, has had one of its own for a while. Rather than being dismissed, native ads created by the in-house agencies of publishers are now being seen as desirable.

Thus a market shifts under our very noses. And here’s why:

Advertisers in the U.S. are expected to spend $4.3 billion this year on so-called “native” ads that emphasize an ad’s editorial-like content and, in some cases, disguise the spots to look like unpaid placements, according to eMarketer. That’s a 34% increase from what brands are projected to have spent on native ads last year.

But there’s another part of native, and it one that applies mostly to mobile. In this definition, “native” is a non-interruptive ad that follows the same format as the site whose feed the visitor is reading. In the future, this will become the most important element of native, because it has to be acceptable to a user on a mobile device. These native ads will appear not only on publisher sites, but on platforms like Facebook, SnapChat and Twitter — platforms where users are accustomed to seeing a certain kind of content, for example photos, videos, or disappearing content and don’t want to be interrupted by an ad in a non-native format.

We think the definition of native as a matter of format as well as content will become more and more important as advertising shifts primarily to mobile devices. We’re developing and experimenting with mobile native formats on an almost weekly basis to test what’s acceptable to visitors and get the best response for advertisers and rising CPMs for publishers.