Native Ads: Balance Brand Promotion with Compelling Content

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In January 2014, users of popular dating app Tinder might have been surprised to come across a profile for Mindy Lahiri, the titular character of the Fox sitcom The Mindy Project, played by creator Mindy Kaling. The profile functioned as an ad for the show—Tinder users who “liked” it immediately received a promotional message. The ad took advantage of the app’s functionality to connect with users in a way that didn’t disrupt their experience.

The New York Times similarly incorporated advertising into its online content in the form of a June 2014 article on female incarceration paid for by Netflix, which was promoting its original series Orange Is the New Black. The piece incorporated dynamic visuals, video, audio, and charts and was designed by the Times’ T Brand Studio, which is in charge of creating content on behalf of brands. Although the article was marked as a paid post, some readers felt the labeling could have been made clearer, especially since the T Brand Studio name can be ambiguous.

The rise of ad blockers demonstrates how ad-averse many consumers still are, which presents a challenge for businesses. Native advertisements such as the ones Tinder and the Times ran on behalf of Fox and Netflix can be an effective way to get users to engage with promotional content without spoiling their experience. But striking a balance between compelling content and brand promotion isn’t easy, especially with consumers who are already sensitive to ads.


Native advertising can be a nebulous term. Freelance journalist Derek Handova tells CRM magazine via email that defining the term remains a work in progress, yet usually refers to “any news story–like content on a website that has been paid for by a company.” He notes that these types of articles typically show up in the “Other Stories,” “Recommended for You,” and “From Around the Web” sections at the bottom of articles.

Emulating the form of its host platform—be it a dating app, a news website, or another service—is an essential component of a native ad. According to Corbett Drummey, CEO of Popular Pays, native ads should deliver the same user experience as the platform, with the ad itself being the content. Chris Schreiber, vice president of marketing and communications at Sharethrough, agrees, saying that native advertising is “a form of paid media that fits the form and function of the site on which it’s placed.” For this reason, it is crucial that native ads provide something of interest to users.

The concept of native advertising is not new—rather, it is an adaptation of a practice from print publishing, Handova says. Brands would often purchase advertorial spreads in publications with wide print circulations. According to Handova, the content of these spreads “was promotional in a soft-sell way” and they “were all conspicuously labeled as ‘advertising,’ or let the reader know she was reading sponsored content in some other way.” Nevertheless, these spreads were informative for the reader, he says.

A major area of confusion with native advertising centers on its relationship with content marketing, a term that can also be ambiguous. In general, experts agree, native advertising can be thought of as a subset of content marketing. But the nature of a piece of content can change depending on a person’s perspective. For example, a denim company might hire a writer to compose a piece on a pair of jeans for a blog. The denim company might consider this an exercise in content marketing, but the story would be a native advertisement to somebody reading the blog.

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