Native Ad Blunders — and How to Avoid Them

By Christopher Hosford



There's little question that native advertising is an increasingly important tactical arrow in the marketing quiver. Its growth has been exponential: a recent Business Insider analysis pegged native advertising's majority share of total U.S. display ad revenue at 56 percent in 2016, and it's projected to rise to 74 percent by 2021.

Native ads — ad units that match surrounding editorial — can take several forms, including in-feed or paid search units, recommendation widgets, and even custom publishing, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). But because the concept is relatively new, blunders can creep in and the strengths of native advertising can be dissipated or even backfire.

While there are a number of tactical pointers marketers should not ignore, forgetting overarching strategic challenges can really foul up a native ad program. Here are five potential native advertising blunders and how to get past them.


1. Ignoring the Unconsidered Need

It's a truism that content marketing must be of high quality, and be as good as or better than the surrounding editorial text. But these necessary superlatives don't necessarily garner eyeballs and engagement. In fact, some content may be too smart for its own good.

Will McKenna, VP of investment communications at the Capital Group, notes that he and others in the industry often publish yearly investment outlooks, placed as native ads on such sites as Morningstar or Yahoo Finance. "The problem is that many in the business, including myself, have been guilty of jumping right to our smart ideas, rather than starting with, 'What's the problem I'm solving for the audience?'" McKenna says. "If my audience is thinking about dealing with investment topics like volatility, uncertainty, and politics, and you step in with, 'Look how smart I am with this outlook,' you've missed the first step."

Crucially, that first step should give readers what they need before they know they need it, says George Stenitzer, founder and chief content officer at Crystal Clear Communications. "When you present prospects with information about a need they hadn't considered before, it's likelier they'll buy from you," he notes.


2. Forgetting About the Neighbors

With native advertising, it's essential that the content meld with the surrounding stories developed by the publisher's in-house editorial staff. When that doesn't happen, the negative impact on both the advertiser and the publisher can be substantial.

"You need to understand the publication you're considering placing your native ad content in, and in particular its readership," says Michael Brenner, CEO of Marketing Insider Group.

Brenner recalls a native ad sponsored by the Church of Scientology that was placed in The Atlantic in 2013. Its format mimicked the surrounding editorial content, but featured an unfailingly glowing account of the organization, even as critical analyses were being published elsewhere. At odds with editorial objectivity and the publication's readership demographics, the ad unit drew plenty of criticism and was quickly taken down.

"This is a learning lesson for everyone, of selling out perhaps too quickly to a brand or position," Brenner says.


3. Not Considering Appropriate Metrics

Because native advertising is a paid placement on a publishing platform, marketers often expect it to work like an ad. That may be a big mistake because it can produce misleading metrics or measurements that don't align with how traditional display ads are gauged.

"Yes, native ads are labeled as sponsored, but the fact is they're content," says Ann Marinovich, SVP of content partnerships and strategy at Forbes; its BrandVoice platform, which launched in 2010, is considered a native ad publishing pioneer. "As a result, you can't measure the effects of native advertising with ad metrics like click-throughs."

Marinovich, who also co-chairs the IAB's committee for social media, native, and content, suggests that marketers focus on such metrics as gauging how far down into a native ad readers tend to go and for how long an article is read. Understanding barriers to either metric helps improve the performance of the creative, she says.

"We had one partner whose native ad was getting a scroll depth of just 40 percent," Marinovich recalls. "It turns out they had inserted a photo at that spot, which acted like a speed bump to the reader. We removed it, and scroll depth improved greatly."


4. Focusing Too Closely On the Buyer's Journey

An abiding challenge for any marketer is to figure out how close prospects are to making a decision, and then deliver messages that lead to conversions. But, while native ads can work well with upper-funnel concepts like awareness and thought leadership, trying to adapt the unit too aggressively to the mid- or lower funnel can be a big turnoff to readers and backfire on the brand.

"Instead, focus on a couple of key touchpoints and be really amazing there," says Carla Johnson, chief experience officer at Type A Communications, a content marketing and customer experience strategy firm. "The key is to have 'buoyancy' between touchpoints that make people want to go back for more content. Don't leave people stranded."

For native ads to fit more appropriately into a funnel-like model, Stenitzer recommends looking at a chain of "soft conversion" metrics that might first entail compelling content that prompts a blog look-see, or a native ad video that includes (subtly) a link to a white paper.

"After these elements, you can route the prospect to a demand funnel of things like webinars, live events, and even in-person meetings," Stenitzer says. "Soft conversions come first, hard conversations later, and ultimately a hand-off to sales."


5. Missing the Devil in the Details

Sometimes, thinking too strategically means the tactical details are overlooked. By ignoring the most basic of native advertising best practices, marketers can nullify all their good work. Consider these usual suspects, among many:

  • Not being topical or relevant. Ignoring the news is often a bad idea, because tying your message to an inherently interesting topic that people actually are interested in is a very good idea.
  • Playing the bait-and-switch. Luring folks in with a compelling topic, only to link to a hard-sell promotion, will alienate customers and advocates.
  • Less is not more. Readers want meaty, compelling content. Throwing up short, meager content is a big meh.
  • More is not more. Choosing quantity over quality is a waste of money and reputation. All marketers are doing is reinforcing mediocrity.

"The basics are still the basics, and that remains particularly true with native advertising," says Jeff Fromm, partner at the ad agency Barkley and author of Marketing to Millennials and Millennials with Kids"Being unique drives pricing authority, being meaningful drives sales, and being innovative is expected by today's modern consumer. If you do these three things well, native ads can accelerate great products and service. If you don't, native advertising — any marketing, in fact — won't work."




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