When Is A Native Ad Not Considered Native?


May 10, 2017 - Originally published by


PageFair’s 2017 Adblock Report features a survey asking people who use ad blockers about which units in particular drove them to block. PageFair’s report concluded that “interruptive ad formats are the primary cause of user frustration,” and chief among those formats were non-skippable video and auto-play audio.

“Non-skippable video” is just industry lingo for something a lot more familiar: TV ads. This year, for the first time, advertisers will spend more on digital channels than on TV, according to eMarketer, so it’s a fitting time to ask why the same formats that have worked for decades on TV are the cause of so much controversy in digital. The vast majority (77 percent) of ad block users surveyed by PageFair indicated that they tolerate some form of advertising — but why is one thing acceptable on TV and not on digital?

TV ads are audio-on pre-roll, but because they occur in the context of linear programming, and because the user expects to see them, people are willing to watch them. The linear TV context — particularly live TV — supports those units, where other (digital) contexts do not, because users are accustomed to the format.

The user’s preference is not about the ad unit itself, but its relationship to the context, and to the implicit permissions people give when they engage with different formats. In other words, the acceptability of ads is not an absolute quality, it is relative.

This understanding needs to inform our approach to native advertising.

Native to what, exactly?

After all, “native” still lacks a proper definition. Sure, it’s easy to see native advertising as old news. Now, native units are seemingly everywhere: native video, native display, social native, programmatic native — the list grows and grows. If you say you’re native, everyone assumes that they know what you mean.

Yet I still routinely encounter basic misperceptions about what counts as native and what does not — even among the most seasoned advertisers and analysts. In fact, these misperceptions have only accelerated as native has grown into a more established category, and as more and more new ad products brand themselves this way. Why?

Poorly executed native ads wind up tarnishing both the advertiser and the publisher; an unexpected interruption contributes to ad blindness, ad avoidance, and ultimately, ad blocking.

I think “native” still lacks a proper definition because native describes a relationship, not an attribute. Just as no advertisement is acceptable in and of itself, no advertisement is really native in and of itself. An ad unit is native only when it matches the look, feel, user path, and quality standards of the editorial content to which it’s adjacent.

Whether or not an ad is native depends on what’s around it, and how it fits in with it. Native is relative, not absolute.

This isn’t just a philosophical exercise. Understanding context with native is absolutely critical to executing it properly. It’s entirely possible to run a “native ad” that is not actually (i.e., relationally) native to the site that it runs on. Even a thoughtful, well-produced piece of content can be served in a way that winds up interrupting and creating a poor user experience.

Poorly executed native ads wind up tarnishing both the advertiser and the publisher; an unexpected interruption contributes to ad blindness, ad avoidance, and ultimately, ad blocking. The stakes increase when advertising shares space in the news feed, so we need to get “native” right.

The other side of context

The way publishers roll out new ad units into their editorial feed is critically important. It turns out that throwing tons of new ad units at the user, only to pare them back later, is an “addition by subtraction” approach that has already proved to be unsustainable.

TV advertising today benefits from decades of consumers becoming accustomed to its format. In digital, however, consumers’ expectations are a moving target, and they are influenced by the ads themselves. Publishers need to keep this in mind.

As publishers introduce new UI features, user flows and content experiences, they are also guiding the moving target of consumers expectations. They should do so with an eye toward the context itself. The key is for publishers to gradually familiarize their users with the kind of experience that they can monetize down the road with content.

Policing the relationship

Branded content is here to stay. But the relationship between branded content and the editorial feed is very much in flux, with different publishers taking wildly different approaches to how they position one against the other.

As we track the progress of native advertising through 2017 and beyond, it’s critical that we maintain our focus on the relationship between branded content and editorial, and not just the growth of units that call themselves native. If native is truly going to fix the “broken” display ad model, it will come from a rigorous focus on how the ads function within the context of the user experience.