Should Social Brands Go Native?

What do people actually mean when they talk about native advertising? And why is it a natural fit for brands that take social seriously?


Matthew Klein
December 19, 2014 - 5 min. read

If you get the impression you’re hearing the words “native advertising” more and more frequently lately, you’re not mistaken. Here’s the Google trend report on the term:


Obviously people are talking a lot about native advertising. What they mean is sometimes less obvious.

Many different ads can be grouped under the native heading because they have some superficial things in common. You can roughly split native ads into two categories. Promoted posts on Facebook would fall into the first category. This is ad content that has the same format as the content that surrounds it–on Facebook, your promoted posts resemble your friends’ posts. There’s an entire industry that’s sprung up around placing this kind of native ad in mobile apps–the ones that look something like this:

social media and native advertising

The second type of native ad, the one we’re talking about here, is content on publisher sites that resembles the publisher’s normal editorial content (though marked as paid). This can also be called sponsored content. Buzzfeed has more or less based its business model on this, producing stories that match its signature article style that are paid for and made with input from brands. The New York Times, to much fanfare, has opened a “brand studio” to produce pieces like this one, a report on women in prison in America sponsored by Netflix to promote its show Orange is the New Black.

It should be mentioned that native advertising has drawn some criticism recently, notably from John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight. The argument is that, especially in hard news sources, native advertising has the potential to be deceptive–content paid for by a sponsor that pretends to be a regular editorial article. I think all native ads need to be clearly labeled, fact-checked and transparent, as the best ones already are.

Native ad content is sometimes created by brands, sometimes by editorial teams from publishers, sometimes by special teams within the publisher company (like the Times Brand Studio).

Both the tone and the content can vary widely. Sales content wouldn’t be considered a native ad, but anything from an in-depth investigation of a political issue to humour pieces that a brand hopes will help it connect with its demographic can fall under the native umbrella.

Why it makes sense for social brands
Facebook has again made changes to their algorithm, to take effect in January, which will decrease the reach of posts that Facebook deems overly sales-y. 

Partly due to this decrease in reach, but in larger part because it resonates with their market, most big brands are producing content for their social channels that is not exclusively geared towards sales, that instead aims to engage, amuse or inform their audience.

Now that this represents a significant share of the content brands produce and distribute on their own channels, it is also progressing to become part of their paid ad spend, particularly in the form of native ads on publisher sites.

When a brand creates a native ad like Netflix did with the New York Times–a high quality, in-depth feature about women’s prisons to promote Orange is the New Black–it can be an excellent complement to their existing content, and can help make a broader content marketing strategy a success.

And like social content, these ads don’t exist in a vacuum; people can choose to read any article on a publisher site, so a native ad will have to be as relevant and as good as other content if it’s going to get attention.

Social cross-pollination
The main draw for any advertiser on a publisher site is the audience. Not just its size, but all that publishers know about it, typically including in-depth demographic data including income levels as well as lifestyle and interest data.

While this can be useful for any advertiser, for content-focused, socially savvy companies, it’s a highly targeted potential new audience.

Native ads also have a significant advantage in that they can be shared on two sets of social channels–the brand’s and the publisher’s.

And it doesn’t hurt that reach for publishers has seen an amazing increase over the last year or two. In 2013, media sites’ traffic from Facebook increased 170%

All those members of a publication’s audience who see and share from publisher social channels will also allow native ads to reach their friends, who probably have a lot in common with them in terms of desirability to advertisers.

This is even more enticing when compared to other ad types. Traditional ads on publisher sites, including banner ads, usually means someone has clicked to read a specific article, and he happens to see an ad on the side. With native ads, clickers are there for the branded content itself.


Native ad from Dell in the New York Times

How does it look when it works?
Take, for instance, this native ad in the form of an article on the Huffington Post, sponsored by Chipotle–the piece is hard to argue with in terms of results. So far, it has  117,000 likes and over 30 thousand shares. 

The piece is simple, going over things that you would be surprised and perhaps not so happy to find in your food, mostly chemicals that are, it’s implied, often found in processed foods.

Chipotle is super strong on social media and produces great content on its own channels. A piece like this with a publisher like the Huffington Post is a way for the brand to extend its content strategy to new audiences.

The post reflects Chipotle’s values–its emphasis on fresh food and natural, often organic ingredients–without selling any products. It allows Chipotle to reach an audience that’s very interesting for them–I would wager that the type of person who would read or share a Huffpo article about chemical edibles is receptive to Chipotle’s message about unadulterated food, but often not necessarily already part of their core fan base, either on social or in their restaurants. In other words, highly attractive for Chipotle.

A new way to engage
The mindset that many successful brands have adopted on social–one where their marketing is as much about providing value to their audience as it is about promoting their wares–is definitely useful beyond social. The rise of native ads on publisher sites are, from one perspective, an extension of that mindset into more “traditional” ad spaces. As a trend it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. And, for me at least, if it means more relevant ads that actually provide value to the audience, it’s a positive one.


Cover photo credit: Flickr user Wrote 

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