| John Mracek


A rose is a rose is a rose. Except when it’s not. The law of universally accepted truths holds that that which is named is what it is. Although in native advertising, the “universal” part is missing. Ask 10 people in the digital media industry what constitutes native advertising and you’ll likely get as many responses.

Advertisers got the native memo in 2013, dedicating dollars and resources to create original, brand-oriented content. Native has clearly struck a chord: according to eMarketer, 59 percent of marketing professionals expect to increase their content efforts and budgets this year.

Native – along with its brethren content marketing and branded content – assumes yet another identity when applied to programmatic advertising. It creates a potent mash-up of owned and paid media by combining the impact of branded content with the reach and scale of the ad exchanges. Let’s see how native is unfolding.

Enter the publishers

For decades, the advertorial reigned supreme in print publishing. It felt like editorial, read like editorial, and mingled with editorial. Not much has changed. Brand-name Web publishers have embraced native – advertorials translated to the digital domain – for many of the same high-value, custom qualities. However, corresponding challenges for advertisers include limitations of proprietary content, scale and transparency issues.

And the Web feeds

Social, microcontent, and portal newsfeeds lay claim to another species of native, the advertisus interruptus. By interjecting advertisers’ “sponsored” posts and stories into a reader’s feed they are placed squarely in the line-of-sight, sandwiched between pictures of a former colleague’s cat or editorial news content. For good or bad. While prominent, interruptive does not always equal engagement and it shrugs off the contextual signals critical for targeting a reader’s intent.

Form follows function

Or says the manifesto, popularized by modernist architects who believed all architectural ornamentation to be superfluous. Newsfeed publishers have interpreted the form-function connection literally, decreeing that advertising must emulate the host format to be native. Publishers, on the other hand, are adamant that native content must model its surroundings to feel like editorial (in this case, the publisher’s styleguide.) In both instances the emphasis is on style over substance, at the risk of confusing resemblance and relevancy.

Full disclosure

Native advertising has its fans, along with its skeptics – namely the FTC. At a time where the roles of journalist and copywriter increasingly are blurred, the FTC justly sees potential for consumer confusion. “Related article”, “sponsored content”, “promoted post”: however it’s labeled, it requires transparency to set it apart from content. This is something that ad-tech world has understood for a long time.

So, what about programmatic native?

Programmatic native inherently reaps the rewards of exchange-based media: reach, page-level targeting, and budget-friendly, for starters. But one of the most valuable benefits is content amplification. Think of programmatic native as the equivalent of the “Marshall stack” for branded content, acting as a powerful content-syndication engine.

As an advertiser, this means starting with something that you are already doing – creating valuable or entertaining content – and extending its reach beyond a single publication or existing fans and followers on your social channels. For example, you may be a B2B company with a carefully created library of whitepapers, research reports, and how-tos in your owned media repository. Using programmatic native, you can gain exposure to new prospects, in different contexts, in a more natural, organic way. Plus, do it more than once.

Putting it all in context

Context is a critical factor for successful programmatic native campaigns. The right, real-time contextual alignment between your branded content and editorial content gives readers a natural reason to click through to your article. Much of that success is predicated on your ad partner reading the intent signals from both the page and reader accurately. But when done right, your click-through performance and engagement metrics will thank you.

Let’s say you’re a pet food company that’s created an article entitled “10 ways to keep your dog safe this winter.”  When your story is aligned with news of the latest polar vortex storm sweeping the Northeast, it triggers the right connections in the pet-owning reader’s mind, prompting a click-through. It’s a given that you’ll want brand-safe placements, too, to shield your story from tragedies that may arise from the storm or other sensitive content.

Rethinking creative: content as ad

One area that requires a different marketing approach is the creative itself. But that doesn’t necessitate complexity and long strategy sessions with your agency. Traditional display and video ads contain elements you’d consider standard any campaign: a strong message, a pithy value proposition, a call to action. What sets programmatic native apart is the use of headlines, excerpts, or other parts of your content as the ad itself, packaged up in standard IAB units to facilitate broad distribution.

Down the road, there’s room for innovation. Publishers may decide to surface additional data on the ad exchanges, such as font and stylesheet specifications, giving advertisers options to align creative and environment if desired.  But, as a blend of art and algorithms, there’s tremendous opportunity today for programmatic native.

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?