Native advertising is being discussed among tech and social media circles as the new big thing in online ads. A shift in the current marketing practices would certainly be welcome. For businesses, there seem to be countless options for reaching out to new customers, but it’s hard to accurately assess their performance. And for customers, the feeling of being no more than a statistic has led some to use tough ad-blocking software and apps, or to quit social media networks.

The latest approach to online advertising promises to strike a happy medium between the disgruntled customers and the overwhelmed companies. Here’s what you need to know about this new development in online marketing and how to decide whether it’s worth while to go native.

The Definition

Native advertising involves sponsored content that is designed to appear along with a publication’s regular content, adopting the same look and feel as the website or blog it’s placed in. This type of content is usually meant to offer additional meaning or information beyond the scope of a mere advertisement. Finally, native ads are intended to be equally useful on the web or on a mobile device.

This new form of advertising can take many different forms. Branded content is a common approach for blogs and brands that value written material. Long-form videos, web films, or paid promotions can also be considered native ads. For social media leaders, Twitter’s Promoted Tweets and Facebook’s Sponsored Stories also fall under the native advertising umbrella.

These characteristics make native ads a markedly different animal than the programmatic ads that have been the norm for most Web advertising. Programmatic ads are usually purchased as stock sizes across a bundle of websites. Their classic dimensions and technologies also translate poorly to mobile devices, which is increasingly how people are choosing to surf the Web.

The Debate

The use of native ads is certainly a promising idea. Even if they aren’t using an ad-blocker for browsing, many people have trained themselves to distrust or ignore the ads they see online. That means the old model of banner display ads is becoming less reliable and less successful. Integrating useful marketing material into the online experience in a tasteful way could help revitalize how people see ads. A better reputation for ads would likely equate to better performance.

Beyond the bottom line, there’s also the question of aesthetics. A big banner ad can kill the look of a beautiful website. More and more of the top blogs are prioritizing design and creating new layouts that favor incorporating native ads. While it’s not necessarily something you can put a price on, the appearance and usability of a site contributes to user experience. Unhappy users are less likely to think favorably of the company whose ads are in their faces, detracting from their experience.

Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, though. Some people question whether native ads are just a sneaky take on an advertorial. Since they are so new and can encompass so much, there aren’t many clear ways to measure native ads’ performance yet. It’s also worth noting that many of the articles on prominent sites encouraging companies to check out native ads are authored by people representing media agencies that specialize in the new format.

Native ads do run the risk of appearing deceptive. The argument made by supporters of this style is that there is some additional value provided to the customer. You need to offer more than a product pitch to be worth the readers’ time. There has to be some additional value so that when people finish reading, they don’t roll their eyes and feel as if they were tricked into reading an ad. Most importantly, though, there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of how the public will respond to this new approach. Reactions will likely depend on the exact material offered by a campaign and how well the push is executed.

The Deal

The main downside to this type of advertising is the extra legwork involved. You need to negotiate directly with the specific website where you want your material to appear. You need serious design or editorial skills to create an ad that blends seamlessly with the existing content, and can display equally well on a laptop and on mobile. There’s also the background research to make sure you know where you’re most likely to find your key demographic.

Traditional advertisers also have justifiable concerns about scale. Native ads involve designing specific material for a specific website, making it less feasible if you want spots to appear on a dozen different blogs.

So is it worth your time? If you have the resources — money, time, creativity, and partnerships — then native ads should be in your plans. You don’t need to completely abandon your current advertising system, however. Try out some small forays with native ads first; Promoted Tweets and Sponsored Stories on Twitter and Facebook are good ways to test the waters with a relatively small commitment.

The key takeaway is that traditional, formulaic ads are going the way of the dinosaur, and soon they may be outdated completely. Publications and customers are beginning to demand more out of online marketing, so make sure your business is ready to adapt and leverage big shifts in the advertising landscape.

Has your brand tried out native ads? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Shannon Kringen, Greeblie, Tim, Victor1558]