Is going native a marketer’s dream?

As the latest content marketing technique, ’native advertising’ is causing a buzz among brands. But there is confusion about what it is and how best to use it without falling foul of the regulations.

‘Native content’ is one of the latest marketing buzzwords, but few brands seem to have got to grips with its meaning and best practice.

Dan’l Hewitt, general manager at global youth media company Vice Media’s adVICE division, describes the term as “an emperor’s new clothes” label, imported from the US, which he says is just another term for branded content.

Conor McNicholas, executive content director at agency Redwood and former editor of NME, agrees: “On its own, it’s essentially advertorials run in a digital space. People who are late to the content party are very excited about it, but those of us who have been engaging in a deep and rich way with target audiences for years simply see it as part of our regular arsenal.”

Native content is a digital advertising method in which the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience, matching both the form and function of the environment in which it is placed.

However, the term is also used more broadly to describe branded digital content that looks and feels like editorial.

This content can take the form of promoted videos, images, articles, music and other media and examples might include promoted tweets, promoted stories on Facebook, promoted posts on Tumblr or sponsored ‘listicles’ (’top 20’-style articles) on BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post.

LinkedIn Sponsored Updates, which launched in July, enable brands to promote business content including video, presentations and product news in the newsfeed of LinkedIn members in 20 languages across more than 200 countries.

If you want users to consume your content or advertising message in a legitimate way, it has to be entertaining, have value and be exciting

“With the average consumer checking their mobile devices 150 times per day, native advertising is quickly becoming one of the primary routes for marketers to engage with their target audience in a digital environment,” says Josh Graff, head of marketing solutions EMEA at LinkedIn.

Sponsored updates appear in member’s feeds on their LinkedIn homepage and are clearly marked as sponsored. The aim is to be seamless, with a combination of organic and sponsored content in their newsfeed. Members can ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘comment’ on the content and can ‘follow’ the company that generated it.

“If you want users to consume your content or your advertising message in a legitimate way, it has to be entertaining, have value, and be exciting, intriguing or emotional,” says Matt Elek, managing director EMEA at Vice Media.

“The tricky bit is to not get too focused on traditional marketing and advertising, to integrate the story so that it feels seamless. There has to be a narrative. It can’t just be putting advertising into the editorial mix because then it feels incongruous.”

Brands have adopted the concept with varying success. A recent Twitter campaign to reinforce Pepsi Max’s position on the global music scene and highlight its partnership with brand ambassador Beyonce, proved successful in terms of the average engagement rate.

Created by agency Jaywing, the brand used promoted tweets and a hashtag to try to ‘own’ the conversation around Beyonce’s UK tour and give away exclusive meet and greet tickets using a queue-jumping competition on Twitter.

By tweeting the promoted trend hashtag #MeetBeyonce, fans could click through to the Pepsi Max site and see where they were positioned in a virtual queue. Three times during the day, the person at the front of the queue won the meet and greet tickets.

Native content initiative The Creators Project had 720,000 attendees to its events last year

Two days before the #MeetBeyonce Promoted Trend went live, @PepsiMaxUK used promoted tweets in search and timelines to generate campaign awareness.

During the one-day competition, more than 150,000 Beyoncé fans used the hashtag and the competition resulted in Pepsi Max gaining 30,000 new Twitter followers. The brand enjoyed a 20.8 per cent average engagement rate at a cost of £0.25 per engagement.

“This competition was a fantastic way to develop our knowledge and understanding of Twitter. It was the first campaign of its kind in the UK to be run on the social networking site,” says Becky Olie, digital director at PepsiCo UK.

Vice Media has been working with Intel to produce native content in the form of articles and videos for its initiative The Creators Project, which celebrates artists across multiple disciplines who are using technology in innovative ways to push the boundaries of creative expression.

Content includes original artwork commissions, a music video series, featuring household and emerging names, tech-focused tutorials and collaborations between Intel Labs and high profile artists. 
The project has gained 275 million video views to date, 340,000 YouTube subscribers and had 720,000 event attendees last year.

With the average consumer checking mobile devices 150 times a day, native advertising is quickly becoming a primary route for marketers

Meanwhile, alastair Cotterill, creative strategist at Facebook Creative Shop also cites Barbour and sportswear brand Rapha as examples of brands that are producing good native content

“Barbour and Rapha are both doing a really nice job. It’s well crafted and consistent in its tone of voice and look and feel. They’re not trying to just drive engagement, they’re telling stories around the brand to their target audience that are credible, interesting and relevant,” he says.

However, not all brands are fairing as well. Cotterill at Facebook Creative Shop believes that few produce native content consistently well. “Lots of brands are trying to deal with [the fact that consumers are] ‘always on’ and the quality of what they’re putting out has fallen through the floor.

“The trick is never to promise that you are going to deliver an entertainment experience and then deliver advertising,” warns Elek at Vice Media. “There’s always a temptation, to skew native advertising into advertising, rather than native advertising content.

”The point of native advertising is that it has to be content because if you end up in someone’s newsfeed and you’re advertising, then it can have the reverse effect of what’s intended, they’ll feel tricked into having blatant advertising messages merged in.”

It is in the interests of platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn that brands produce quality content. “That’s why Facebook’s algorithm has so many rules governing advertiser content in its News Feed – it’s self-preservation,” says Robin Bonn, business development director at content agency Seven. “If they lose their audience, they’ll be [like unsuccessful social network] MySpace.”

The Creators Project, produced for Intel by Vice, celebrates artists who are using technology in innovative ways

One of the biggest mistakes brands make, says Cotterill, is to recycle assets from elsewhere and not create content that’s designed to be native.

“I would love to see brands producing very high level content consistently throughout the year, but the reality is that once you take it more seriously and focus on producing great content, you naturally find that you can’t do that 365 days of the year.

”I believe it may be more effective to do this in shorter bursts, high impact, high quality, to the right people, versus, just trying to have your voice out there constantly when you haven’t necessarily got anything that interesting to say.”

However, it’s not just quality that brands have to worry about, but also regulation (see ‘The rules of native’, below).

As the lines continue to blur between editorial and branded content, some fear it may confuse readers and undermine editorial standards. Others, say that advertorials and sponsored boxouts have been around for years and that a new digital incarnation is nothing different.

And as Alex Silcox, managing director of John Brown Media says: “All content marketing, done well, can lay some claim to being ‘native’ in the current use of the phrase. Native content is about trying to achieve the same aims as advertising always has – brand engagement, increased market share and spend.”

Whichever stance you take, it is worth knowing what works to ensure that you drive people to engage with it – rather than pushing them away.

The rules of native

As marketing and advertising messages increasingly resemble the content in which they are embedded, there is concern by some that this may lead to confusion among consumers and undermine editorial integrity. In the UK, section 2 of the Cap Code deals with the recognition of marketing communications and these rules apply regardless of the targeting or medium.

Marketing communications must be obviously identifiable as such on all platforms. While context driven content is not a problem, cloaking advertisements as editorial is.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) specifically prohibits “using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content, images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer.”

The IAB has also issued guidelines to help brand owners and marketing practitioners keep within the law.

This year, Wayne Rooney, who is a brand ambassador for Nike, was accused of plugging a Nike marketing campaign in a tweet: “The pitches change. The killer instinct doesn’t. Own the turf, anywhere. @NikeFootball #myground”. The Advertising Standards Authority investigated a complaint that the tweet was “not obviously identifiable as a marketing communication” but ruled last month that it did not break advertising rules because its language was markedly different from the footballer’s usual Twitter messages.

Previously, the ASA banned a Nike campaign featuring tweets from Rooney because they were not clearly identified as promotional messages. Sports stars and celebrities have been advised to use the hashtags #spon or #ad to clearly identify paid-for-tweets.

Three key challenges

Seamless integration

Matt Elek, managing director EMEA at Vice says: “The key is, when they consume a piece of native content, it should feel like an entertainment experience, like something that has a legitimate place in the newsfeed.”

Josh Graff, head of marketing solutions EMEA at LinkedIn says: “Context matters and your content has to be distributed at the right time, to the right person and, perhaps most importantly, on the right platform. Only when all these criteria are met do consumers start to engage and marketers see a return on their investment, whether that’s brand uplift, purchase intent, acquisition, or advocacy.”


Alastair Cotterill, creative strategist at Facebook says: “Users can sniff out inauthentic content really well – people have been tuned to it over decades with advertising, so people’s guards go up straight away if someone is just pushing advertising, or just trying to drive engagement for engagement’s sake at the expense of content and relevancy.”

Robin Bonn, business development director at content agency at Seven says: “Whether you’re a publisher, a brand or a celebrity on twitter, the old lessons still apply – be relevant, don’t annoy your audience and don’t compromise your editorial integrity.”


Elek at Vice says: “The rules should be governed by consumers. If you’re a media company and you start sticking tons of bad native advertising into your media, people will eventually abandon it.”

Sponsored viewpoint


Francis Turner
Commercial director and co-founder
Content Amp

In the UK we have been relatively slow to embrace the native trend. This is now finally changing. More and more marketers, brands and their agencies are going native – and it is something that is here to stay. Estimates predict that as much as $3bn will be invested in native advertising formats by 2016 alone.

For those who are not sure what native is,as a broad definition native adverts are contextually relevant content-led ads that are user-initiated. They fit seamlessly into the overall design of the host site so that they look like part of the site, but they are clearly labelled as sponsored.

When a consumer clicks and interacts with the native content it is important that it behaves like the surrounding editorial content on the host site. In a nutshell, it is content-led advertising. The sponsored post sits seamlessly in the design and layout of the host site – it doesn’t sit in a banner placement or as an overlay that interrupts the site but is a part of the editorial of the host site. Crucially, too, the ad is user initiated – the user has to click to view the content.

Why the growth in native? Native offers brands the opportunity to speak to, interact and engage with their customers where they congregate online – all in an environment that is completely user- initiated. Interruptions to the user experience are seldom rewarded online these days. At best they are ignored and are therefore irrelevant; at worst they can really damage your brand. Native, when done right, captivates your target audience and makes them want to find out more.

What native advertising means for brands is that the right content – be it editorial, video or image based – distributed to the right audience, in a format they are comfortable with, now offers rewards to brands that far outweigh anything they can hope to achieve with more traditional forms of captive advertising alone. This is native advertising, and why it is so exciting. Native combines all the performance metrics and analysis advertisers have come to expect from their online campaigns with the creative, audience-winning techniques beloved of publishing and TV. It is powerful stuff.

The opportunities for reach and scale are obvious. Personally, I am looking forward to working with innovative brands on creative content-led campaigns that push the boundaries on what can be done with native advertising. Innovation is rewarded online and native ad formats allow for significant creative innovation, while delivering reach and engagement that many other display ad formats can only dream of: from our own campaigns we are recording 5 to 20 times better performance compared with standard banner advertising.

The fact that native works just as well regardless of whether your customer is using a laptop, smartphone or tablet device only adds to the its benefits. Few brands can afford to ignore it. If you are interested in finding out more about native, download our Guide to Native at



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