How Should Marketers Define Native in 2019: Simple Question, Still No Easy Answer

How Should Marketers Define Native in 2019: Simple Question, Still No Easy Answer

In January, Statista predicted that global digital advertising spending would grow to $248.59 billion this year and that 2019 is the year that native advertising will be adopted on a massive scale. Time and time again, digital agencies and marketers have thrown around the word “native” with little clarity on what constitutes native advertising. Is it a form of paid search? Is it social media? Is it sponsored content? The answer is yes – to all of these. Search, social, sponsored content and other ad formats can all be bucketed under native.

For purposes of this blog, we’ll focus on native as it applies to display ads and editorial content.  Native closes the digital gap between search and social advertising by aligning itself with contextually relevant content designed to educate and engage targeted consumers and to drive a specific action.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) standing on the subject hasn’t been updated since 2014, which may be why marketers still have a vague and varied grasp of the term. The IAB defined native as “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.” Ultimately, successful formats blend in seamlessly with the site and don’t feel overtly advertorial or intrusive, and don’t trick the user.

Native Ad Types

The IAB Playbook (dated December 2013!) outlined 6 core types of native ads, but I’d argue that these formats are still applicable in 2019:

In-Feed Units – In-feed ad units are ads inserted in between content and often have the greatest variations. Users are served these ads on digital publications such as Forbes, Mashable and Buzzfeed, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In-feed units are designed to monetize a site more organically and are less intrusive to the user. When done correctly, the content looks and feels identical to the editorial content in the feed, and often links to a page on or off the site. In-feed units are especially effective across mobile devices.

Paid Search – Considered the grandfather of native advertising, paid search ads can supplement any form of media campaign. This type of native messaging is featured on Google, Bing and Yahoo and is typically shown between organic search results. It’s important for brands to be easily accessible with minimal consumer effort. Their intent is to convince a user to take an action ranging from click-to-website to click-to-call, and often include multiple extensions with additional information, such as a business’ location.

Recommendation Widget – Native advertising companies Taboola and Outbrain leverage this model, and I’d consider it one of the more recognizable forms of native advertising. Recommendation widgets often appear at the edges of a webpage or within a sidebar. Within the module, an image and headline are accompanied by text such as “Recommended for You,” “From Around the Web,” or “You Might Also Like.” Since both Taboola and Outbrain are both considered content discovery platforms, their offerings are pretty much identical. However, they partner with different publishers.

Promoted Listings – Browse through Amazon or Etsy, and you’re sure to find ad modules with “Sponsored Products” that promote an alternative or similar product and redirect the user to that product’s content. These modules lack the editorial nature of in-feed units and recommendation widgets but fit seamlessly into their environment and tend to be hyper-targeted. Their success is usually measured in terms of direct response metrics.

IAB standard display ads with “native” element units – Users can identify these as true “ads” more easily than in-feed ads since they tend to be standard ad units, such as a 300×250 rectangle, with a few special characteristics. They have similar color schemes, fonts, and light branding to the actual website, and push specific content to the reader. The editorial content would be relevant to the advertiser. For example, a chain restaurant could sponsor food and beverage content on an appropriate publisher.

Custom – Microsites, Buzzfeed listicles, curated or featured playlists on Pandora and Spotify, and influencer programs – these are all examples of creative, robust and custom native options. Though they can be more expensive and labor-intensive, these executions are some of the most innovative. They can be exciting options to consider as they create an entire environment on the web where an advertiser has complete control.

Industry Applications

For years, Harmelin’s digital planners have been proposing native options for clients, often with a focus towards the healthcare, education and finance verticals. In education, recent results have trended strongest for Recommendation Widgets, which have exceled at driving efficient traffic and on-site actions, such as “Visit Campus” or “Make an Appointment” requests.

With healthcare clients, standard display ads have shown the most recent impact across Harmelin’s native campaigns, with their designed strength in promoting client-generated content seeming to mesh well with this vertical.

There are still relatively few vendors that offer a true native option. One of the few is Nativo, which offers a “True Native” product that has been performing particularly well for Harmelin’s regional hospital systems. This product repurposes client content and pushes it out across a network of publishers, often using a client’s whitelist. The content looks and feels like any other article on the site, but is also branded with the client’s creative, tapping into the idea that internet users have brand loyalty to certain publishers and appreciate the chosen publication’s voice. Units like Nativo’s “True Native” can feel like an appropriate option for clients that generate their own editorial content and want to be featured on publications aligned with their values.


For campaigns featuring native units, secondary engagement metrics can be of great value in addition to the primary campaign metric being evaluated (such as site traffic or actions), ranging from consumption gauges like Average Time on Content, Scroll Initiation, Article Scroll Depth & Down Scroll Velocity to “earned” media amplification like Shares. Third-party brand/content influence studies are also a good way to gauge native ad impact, providing insights into a campaign’s ability to positively influence consumers’ brand education, consideration, affinity and intent versus competitors.


If you’re looking for out-of-the-box ideas, I recommend sparking a native discussion. Given the above six formats, a native option is worth exploring to effectively supplement and boost campaign results.