The Beginner’s Guide to Native Advertising

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In 1915, General Motors’ copywriter Theodore F. MacManus created what is often described as the first-ever native advertisement.

To promote a new Cadillac engine, MacManus published an article called “The Penalty of Leadership” in The Saturday Evening Post. It wasn’t a pretty photo of a new Cadillac car or a breakdown of the engine’s features. It was just a story that looked like other stories in The Saturday Evening Post and didn’t scream, ‘This is an ad!’

It was a risk at the time, but it paid off. Cadillac sales surged and back in 1945 the ad got voted ‘The Greatest Ad of All Time.’

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Over 100 years after publication of this ad, native advertising has taken on a new life — one that holds as much, if not more, potential for digital marketers and opens up a world of opportunities for engaging audiences.

Still, for marketers who are new to native advertising, this strategy can seem intimidating. That’s why I’ll break down what native advertising means, provide some examples of how it’s used, and highlight the major players in the field that you need to know.

Let’s take a look:

What is native advertising?

I’ll start with a simple definition: Native advertising is a form of advertising where the ad matches the format and context of the surrounding content. A native ad on social media looks like a regular social media post. A native ad on a Google search results’ page looks like the other Google search results on that page.

Why are native ads so great? For one, they provide a seamless experience for the viewer. Instead of popping up in the middle of an article or totally disrupting the flow of a social feed, native ads fit right into the content people are already viewing.

It’s no surprise then, that native advertising spend is likely to make up nearly 60% of display spending in 2018. That’s $32.9 billion — a 31% increase from 2017.

Some native advertising examples.

Native advertising on the Internet runs across three major distribution channels:

Search

When native ads first emerged in search results they were revolutionary. They provided an easy way for marketers to reach consumers who were looking for specific products. They allowed marketers to skip right to the bottom of the funnel.

These Google search results for sports sunglasses, for example, include two native ads up top, followed by the organic search results.

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The problem with search native ads, however, is that the bottom of the funnel gets quite crowded, and marketers must spend more money for capped inventory as a result.

Social

Like search, social also introduced a new home for native ads, especially on mobile where ads on platforms like Instagram are largely indistinguishable from their organic counterparts.

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With social platforms at their fingertips, advertisers have the power to collect data at scale and slice and dice it by a range of metrics and demographics.

Still, the issue with social is that it’s mostly used for engagement, which is not a super clear metric for many performance marketers and it won’t get you to the bottom of that funnel, which search does.

Open web

While social and search lead their own revolutions, the open web is still full of websites, publications, and content that people spend a lot of time with.

That’s why the Internet has given way to a more scalable solution: native advertising on publishers’ websites.

Native advertising on the open web combines the reach of search ads with the in-depth data of social ads to engage specific audiences with the most relevant messaging. Just look at these native ads served up by Taboola at the end of a Business Insider article:

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This open-web method even keeps that trusty marketing funnel intact. By sponsoring content on top publishers’ sites, marketers can spread awareness across the open web, build consideration by targeting customers familiar with their brand, and ultimately drive conversions back on their own sites.

Who are the major players in native advertising?

In Harry Potter, a boggart is a shapeshifter that turns into someone’s worst fear when they see it. When Hermione sees the boggart, it turns into Professor McGonagall telling her she failed her exams. When marketers see the boggart, it turns into this super-graphic of 5,000 marketing technologies:

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That’s to say that marketers are likely overwhelmed by the amount of social platforms, content publishers, and solutions out there.

So I’m going to help break it down for you.

Let’s take a simple, but comprehensive look at the major players in native advertising:

Supply-side

I’ll start with those who’ve got the goods: the audience you’re looking to reach.

They include:

  • Traditional media publishers like ESPN, The Weather Channel, and Bloomberg. They often work with enterprise brands looking to cast a wide net.
  • New media publishers like BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and Refinery29. They’re more likely to work with smaller brands looking to reach niche audiences.

These suppliers have a common goal: Monetize their sites with branded content to increase revenue and boost engagement.

Who do they sell to exactly? That’s where the demand-side players come in.

Demand-side

If you’re a digital marketer, this is your section since you’re the one who wants to reach the audience.

You’re operating among:

  • Agency advertisers, who act as third parties between publishers and brands. They help brands large and small execute their native advertising without having to build in-house operations.
  • Brand advertisers from big businesses and corporations. They use native advertising to reach the widest audience possible and generate awareness.
  • Performance marketing advertisers from businesses and startups. They want to grow their companies and sell their products through native advertising.

Found your spot? Onto the final group…

Technology platforms

These third-party platforms are the glue that holds together many demand-side publishers and supply-side advertisers.

They include:

  • Content discovery platforms like Taboola, who provide advertisers with access to thousands of publisher websites, ultimately serving relevant content to target audiences.
  • Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, who provide in-feed advertising opportunities to publishers, agencies, and brands.
  • Search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! who curate content for users based on their search queries. They help publishers and advertisers run ads and reach consumers at the bottom of the funnel.

Now that you have the lay of the land, you can start looking at the next steps: building your own native advertising operation and expanding your digital marketing strategy.

How can you build native ads right now?

It’s always overwhelming to fit a new marketing strategy into your current setup. But the good news is that you can start native advertising campaigns with ease — and without breaking the bank, by:

  • Defining your target audience(s). Most platforms let you target by location, device, age, gender, and interest. But be sure to dig deeper into your results for more granulated and precise targeting options.
  • Allocating your spend. Use your goal cost per click (CPC) to measure your initial campaign budget. While you can start generating meaningful traffic and leads for just $50-100 a day, higher CPCs let you cast a wider net at the beginning. From there, you can learn about your audience and optimize to reach more engaged audience segments.
  • Choosing the right tools. If you’re running native ads on the open web, platforms like Taboola can provide access to thousands of publisher websites. On social, you can use built-in ad platforms on the major networks, or third-party tools like AdEspresso by Hootsuite. And for search, you can use tools like Google AdWords to run ads or third-party services like WordStream and AdStage.”

Once you’re done, you’ll have a scalable model for building brand-safe, trustworthy, and engaging native ads that drive content discovery among new audiences.