What is Native Advertising and Does It Work?

With ad fatigue at an all-time high, advertisers are using native advertising to keep things fresh and engage consumers. So what exactly is it and is it working?

If you’ve been on a popular internet publishing site or on social media, you’re almost guaranteed to have come across native advertising. It’s everywhere these days and, in some cases, it’s getting harder to spot. But is it effective?

So, what exactly is it?

Native advertising is a form of paid media designed to combat ad fatigue. It does this by matching the look, feel and function of the media type it displays on. You’ll often find native advertising on social media feeds and as recommended content on a publishing website. It blends in so seamlessly with organic content that for many consumers, it’s indistinguishable. Research shows 50% of consumers have no idea what native advertising is. This makes it incredibly popular with brands and publishers because, unlike a display ad, it’s not visually disruptive. Three out of four publishers offer native advertising on their sites and 41% of brands use native ads as part of a wider marketing campaign.

Because a native ad blends in with the user experience, it’s a fantastic way to get an ad in front of an audience without triggering their internal ad detector. However, the inability of some consumers’ to distinguish between organic and promoted content makes it a bit controversial. In addition, for publishers, it carries some risk.

This native ad appears among questions on Quora, the popular answer site.

Okay, what makes native advertising controversial?

There is a perception among critics that native ads are deceptive. The argument is that some advertisers cross the line to make their ads indistinguishable from normal editorial content. Because of this, consumers may not realize they’re consuming a paid advertisement. The Federal Trade Commission and industry regulatory bodies have exhibited concern that advertisers are disguising ads to trick readers.

How to spot native advertising

Native ads on MSN. Notice the green Ad tag.

Early on, some marketers bristled at the idea that publishers would overtly label native ads as advertising. They believed this would potentially turn off readers before they could judge the content based on its quality. Although native ads integrate smoothly with content, consumers can usually identify them by looking for tags such as:

  • Suggested post
  • Recommended for you
  • You might also like
  • Topics for you
  • Paid content
  • Sponsored by
  • Suggested video

Does native advertising work?

The numbers say yes:

  • Consumers are twice as likely to view native ads over editorial content
  • Consumers look at native ads 53% more than display ads
  • Native ads create an 18% increase in purchase intent
  • 97% of mobile media buyers say native ads are more effective

Is all native advertising viewed negatively?

Not at all. There are plenty of brands that supply quality articles with real substance that do not go for the hard sell. However, 51% of consumers who are aware of native advertising are skeptical of it, so brands and publishers must tread carefully. Any perceived impropriety can hurt the publisher’s image.

Where native advertising can get dicey is when an online publisher appears to be sacrificing its editorial neutrality. Imagine you click on what you think is an unbiased article about the Top 3 mid-range smartphones. But after reading it your realize it’s a paid article by a national brand promoting the phones it sells. Naturally, this type of biased “article” could rub some people the wrong way and reflect poorly on the publisher. Tactics like this have prompted the Federal Trade Commission to consider monitoring native advertising more closely.

The importance of maintaining transparency

For online publishers, native advertising can be lucrative. However, they run the risk of undermining the public trust if they lack transparency. When the New York Times introduced native ads, it took heat for posting a “story” written by Dell for money. Even though the publisher clearly marked it as a native ad, critics wondered if the Times could now objectively report on Dell. How could readers ever be certain a story favorably mentioning Dell wasn’t paid for? And while the Times stressed the importance of clearly distinguishing between ads and content, it reduced visual clues in later ads.

Do people fail to recognize native ads?

Not often according to a study by Stanford professors Navdeep Sahni and Harikesh Nair. Native ads have been around long enough that most people can distinguish between them and normal content. This holds true even if the ad has no identifying tags to distinguish it from editorial content. However, the truly eye-opening discovery for the researchers was that a native ad — whether it was disguised or obvious — influenced consumer behavior even if they didn’t interact with it.

As Sahni points out: “The mechanism through which such advertising works is not clicks — the consumers we observe don’t inadvertently click on an ad and buy a product without knowing they saw the ad. Instead, they internalize the ad and may later search for the product in question or visit the advertiser’s page.”

What this boils down to is ad exposure is having a deeply subtle effect on consumers.

Examples of effective native advertising

There are plenty of examples of effective native ads, so let’s look at a few.

‘Know Your Girls’ on AOL

In this example, the Susan G Komen breast cancer foundation and the Ad Council teamed up to serve this savvy native ad to consumers on AOL.com. They designed the “Know Your Girls” campaign to promote breast health and breast cancer awareness among African American women. The ad clearly speaks to its target audience with language it will relate to and a catchy title.

A click on the CTA leads the reader to a well-designed website that provides health resources and shares women’s personal stories as well as critical information about risk factors and screening.


Glass Gem corn on Business Insider

Here’s a great example of native content that is effectively promoted on Business Insider. This piece does an excellent job of mimicking a regular Business Insider article to tell a compelling story that is visual and colorful. It’s the story of a man exploring his Native American roots in a quest that ultimately led him to develop colored corn.

The article contains links to purchase the seeds from a not-for-profit conservation company that now owns the product. What we have here is a product sales page brilliantly presented as a remarkable and engaging news story; this piece of evergreen advertising has been so successful it’s been updated over a six-year period.

Netflix and Spotify

Native advertising doesn’t have to be an article. Spotify and Netflix teamed up to create an immersive and interactive native ad to capitalize on the popularity of Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things.

The premise of their brilliant native advertising was to entice consumers to discover which Stranger Things character they have the most in common with when it comes to listening habits. When visitors logged into they Spotify account, the app matched them with a character whose imagined playlist they could listen to.


When done right, native advertising offers enormous potential for publishers and brands to fashion quality content that is effective, enlightening and creative and is more likely to generate results than a run-of-the-mill display ad – even if it isn’t viewed.

While the notion of collaborating with a brand to create a piece of native advertising might leave some publishers feeling uneasy, the reality is they don’t have to betray their editorial standards. Interactive content can be just as well-crafted as a piece of legitimate journalism.

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About the author


Although born in the United Kingdom, Sean moved to Arizona when he was ten-years-old and [...]