Photo credit: Chris Potter

Native ads offer advantages to both publishers and marketers. Also called sponsored content, native ads can deliver substantial revenue for publishers. For brands, sponsored content offers superb marketing opportunities, as the content is often viewed and shared more than other forms of advertising.

Given those benefits, many publishers and sponsors are seizing the opportunity. Spending on native ads will reach $7.9 billion this year, a 69 percent increase from 2013, and reach $21 billion by 2018, predicts a recent study from BI Intelligence.

Native ads are a cross between journalism and advertising. They are PR, an opportunity for a brand to tell a story in a journalist-like fashion. Ideally, they integrate seamlessly with the website’s editorial content in both appearance and substance. Content is tilted toward educating the reader; any promotion of the sponsoring brand is subtle, unlike traditional advertising.

The ads appear alongside a publication’s editorial content. In digital formats, the native ad is often inserted into a user’s newsfeed. While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires labeling of the native ad content as sponsored or paid, the notice is usually unobtrusive and overlooked by many readers.

Income over Integrity

Because native ads can be a financial windfall, struggling media companies may become smitten by the income at the expense of editorial integrity. If publishers approve overtly promotional native advertising, they can lose credibility and readership. Sponsors will also eventually suffer as readership declines. Publishers can prevent that scenario by accepting sponsored content that delivers value to readers.

Marketers can also assume responsibility by working with publishers to ensure their sponsored posts meet the same standards as the publisher’s editorial content. Many marketers fail to accept that sponsored content is meant to send a subtle PR message rather that an obvious sales pitch.

Being overtly self-promotional is probably the biggest reason for weak results from native advertising. Consumers quickly become disillusioned if they feel the content is selling something and become less inclined to view other sponsored content from the brand or articles on the website. A study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Edelman Berland found that 60 percent of U.S. news audiences are more open to digital ads that tell a story as opposed selling a product.

How to Create Sponsored Content that Gets Attention

For the most effective native advertising, experts recommend the following practices:

Be relevant. The best performing paid content is relevant to readers of the specific publication where it is placed. Ninety percent of consumers say relevancy is a top factor in sparking interest in sponsored content. In addition, sponsored content gets a 33 percent boost when featured on well-respected websites. To offer relevant content, marketers must first determine if the publisher’s audience and voice align with their brand.

Trust the publisher. Some marketers can benefit by placing more faith in publisher’s judgment about content. The sponsored content should read like it was produced by the publisher, not the brand, and the publisher’s team better understands the outlet’s style and audience.

Be transparent. Native advertising must be clearly labeled as paid or sponsored content to maintain viewers’ trust. The IAB reports that 81 percent of readers believe brand familiarity and trust are crucial for sponsored content success. Marketers must work with publishers to ensure that sponsored content is clearly labeled as such.

Maintain quality. The best native advertising equals, or even exceeds, the quality of the publisher’s editorial. Experts recommend publishers set specific standards for quality, create separate teams for producing editorial and native ad content, sell native advertising as an ongoing program as opposed to a short campaign, and refuse to publish content that doesn’t meet editorial standards. Marketers developing content can strive to deliver a high-quality product and work with publishers.

Sponsors who work closely with publishers in advance of developing a native ad are more likely to produce content that successfully meets the needs of readers, publisher and sponsor. Meeting readers’ needs and interests – offering informational or emotional value to readers — is the paramount requirement for native advertising success.

Bottom Line: Native advertising continues to grow robustly and generate marketing successes for many brands. Some sponsored content, though, misses the mark. It looks and reads like traditional advertising rather than the editorial content it is supposed to resemble. If publishers and marketers don’t maintain quality and transparent labeling, the entire native advertising movement may be endangered as consumers feel manipulated and become increasingly cynical.