"Native advertising" is a term commonly used to describe advertising that tries to blend into its environment, like Promoted Tweets on Twitter or Sponsored Stories on Facebook. But there are lots of opinions about what it covers, and whether it is really something new. Now, a new report from the Altimeter Group tries to define the term and the landscape in which it lives. 

There are various theories as to where the term first originated and what it actually includes. Are advertorials native advertising? Is content marketing? Altimeter interviewed over two dozen publishers, social networks, brands, agencies, vendors and industry experts, and came up with the following definition:

Native advertising is a form of converged media that combines paid and owned media into a form of commercial messaging that is fully integrated to, and often unique to, a specific delivery platform."

facebook suggested post, digital marketing, native advertising

 Native ad examples in Facebook

Splitting Hairs

In other words, according to the Defining and Mapping the Native Advertising Landscape report, native advertising "lives at the intersection of paid and owned media, and is therefore a form of converged media." Owned media are channels that a brand controls, and paid media is advertising.

In Altimeter’s view, native advertising overlaps with advertorial and sponsored content, but one can get quite philosophical in trying to split the right hairs. The report notes that some kinds of advertising are indeed native, because they can only exist on a given platform, such as a Promoted Tweet on Twitter.

The report says the form has evolved because of the advantages it offers to the "ecosystem players." Publishers get new forms of premium inventory, social platforms have new advertising products, brands find new ways to get attention, agencies have new creative opportunities, and so on.

And what about the consumer? The report suggests that native advertising provides a "more elegant and seamless user experience" that is consistent with the channel, and often with the content that the user was seeking.

More Like Editorial

There are good reasons why brands are looking for new ways to get their messages across. In the online world, brands are trying to figure out ways to get around such ad-avoiding behavior as "banner blindness," skipped pre-roll ads, and the highly fragmented media landscape that is screaming for consumer attention across many kinds of screens and channels.

As the report notes, the chief creative component in native advertising is content marketing, a term used to indicate messaging that pulls in users instead of interrupting them. In short, it is advertising evolving into something that is more like editorial content, which ostensibly is the stuff consumers really want.

There is also the factor of limited screen real estate in mobile devices, which have become the center of gravity for interactive channels. The report quotes Jim Prosser, senior manager of communications for Twitter, who said that such integrated ads are intrinsically part of his company's communications, and therefore "there is no such thing on Twitter as a mobile ad." He added that a key driver of native advertising is "because of mobile,” where integrated ads make better use of the small screens.

But, as in everything, there are downsides. Native advertising is still evolving, it's often labor intensive, the metrics are not fully defined and the content needs to be great, among other things.

Disclosure and Transparency

Altimeter said that many publishers do not distinguish between native advertising, sponsored content or promoted content. But the report maintains that the integration of the platform into the advertising makes native advertising "a breed apart from yesteryear's standard advertorial." As with advertorials, though, publishers, brands and agencies need to have clear policies about disclosure and transparency, since they could easily end up damaging their brands if consumers feel they've been tricked.

To achieve success using native advertising, Altimeter recommends eight critical elements, including transparency and trust, content strategy, collaboration, an earned component, content portability, training, ability to scale and measurements.

One could make the case that native advertising, as a platform-specific version of content marketing, is the natural evolution of advertising seeking to take advantage of the medium through which it is delivered. We can expect this form of embedded advertising to flourish as new channels with unique properties are developed, but it has limits in that its very channel-specific uniqueness makes it difficult to port to other channels.

This Altimeter Group report addresses one of the most interesting developments in the development of useful information. Editorial content is similarly looking to take advantage of the properties of the channel through which it is delivered, such as the New York Times' groundbreaking Snow Fall project. But one hopes that the Altimeter Group will, at some point, focus more on the larger question of exactly how consumers are responding to all of these embedded messages.