Native ads: a primer for B2B marketers

Native ads are a complex topic: they cover a wide range of categories, and seemingly encompass every type of advertising on the web. The easiest way to think about native ads is to focus on their context. They're meant to feel at home where they're displayed. Some native ads you're likely familiar with include Google's search ads, sponsored posts in your Twitter stream, or sponsored listicles on Buzzfeed.

But there's more to native ads beneath the surface. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) came up with six types. You can go more in-depth in their playbook, which tries to explain the grey area between standard ads, targeted ads, and native ads. The main categories include:

  1. In-feed/In-stream Units These appear as posts within the stream of content – whether it's a Facebook post, YouTube ad, Buzzfeed listicle, a blog, or a podcast. You'll see these everywhere from TechMeme to Daring Fireball. (For a fascinating look at where these started, check out John Gruber's talk about the early days of sponsored content at XOXO last year.)
  2. Paid Search Units You know these, they're the search ads we're all familiar with. Those little yellow ads above (or to the right) of your results that say "Ad."
  3. Recommendation widgets Have you seen the "You might also like..." grids at the bottom of news articles and blogs? These are recommendation widgets. When they're not filled with spam ("What they discovered in this abandoned building will shock you!"), they can be a decent way to share interesting content with your target buyer.
  4. Promoted Listings These are similar to search ads, but will show up when you're browsing instead of searching. You'll be familiar with these in B2C sites like Amazon, when you see a "promoted" item beside the other things Amazon thinks you should buy. This applies to a lot of B2B channels as well, like the Salesforce App Exchange, software directories, and review sites.
  5. In-ad with native elements These take standard display ads, but add contextually relevant content within the ad. Rather than the ad being part of the content, the content is part of the ad. Typically the ad buyer has a greater degree of control over where the ad appears versus a traditional display ad.
  6. Custom / Can't be contained This catch-all covers any new type of content, like what you see inside of Flipboard, some of the new content coming out of Tumblr, and more.

Native ads are all about the content

Since native ads are meant to feel at home within their environment, when you're creating them you need to take special care to make sure they fit the audience viewing them.

Topic, tone, and presentation

Keep the topic interesting to your audience and tailored to the site where it's being displayed. Here are some sites I've worked with before and how executions vary wildly:

  • If you're sponsoring your blog feed on TechMeme, you can use the opportunity to write about topics related to your business, tied to current events. These should be approachable for a technically savvy audience, updated at least 3-5 times a week, and short, shareable content. In this case, you're responsible for content and you'd want a backlog built ahead of time.
  • If you're commissioning gated content on CMSWire for lead generation, like a whitepaper or analyst report, you'll want something of high-value for your target buyer, with a compelling landing page and in-site promotion. Here, you're working with the team to guide the content creation, but it's mostly hands-off.
  • If you're doing an interactive ad on Quartz, you'll want to keep it related to one of their Obsessions. Pairing this with a series of thematic articles, written by their team without your input, and using your ad unit to tie it all together is a great way to build on a larger story.
  • You can embed cards in promoted Tweets, with pre-populated forms built in that enable one-click event registration, targeted by geography, followers, and interests.
  • And with an independent site, like Daring Fireball or MacStories, you're providing a short post that gets added into their main blog feed. Short and simple.

Ad disclosure

Each native ad type has a set of disclosure statements that should be part of it – and for good reason. Native ads live in a grey area between content and advertising, like advertorials of yesteryear. These disclosures are generally controlled by the publisher, and while it's more likely a publication will be to blame than your brand, you don't want to be on the wrong side of a campaign that goes too far.


Which brings us to ethics. Native ads should not be written like editorial content or an endorsement. Recently The New York Times brought this up regarding podcasts. Here, Gimlet is producing exceptionally high quality ads, where the ads quality rivals that of the main story. That's a very different situation from the uproar The Atlantic caused in 2013, where they posted an ad for Scientology that read as an endorsement from the staff.

These are two stories with different endings: I think Gimlet has it right (early production issues aside) – native content needs to feel real, but be marked as an ad. The Atlantic got it wrong by having content that was misleading, not appropriate for its audience, and displayed advertiser content in a tone written like a first-party article.

Stay honest and always be clear when you're advertising.

Who makes it?

DIY and/or agency

For some native ads, like promoted content and search ads, you can and should create your own content. Run A/B tests for engagement, measure your click-through rates, but also monitor conversions through the rest of the funnel. You want to make sure the right message is getting the right audience.

Don't let those AdWords campaigns go stale: your creative should be re-evaluated and re-tested often. And seasonal campaigns, like promoted Tweets for a webinar, should be scheduled to be turned off.

Commissioned content

There are a few ways to commission content:

Sponsor content or topics

You can sponsor a theme – say, having Quartz or The Next Web write about IT Network Management or EdTech (or whatever), powered by your brand. This is first-party content, written by the editorial team, independent of you, but related to a topic your brand cares about. Typically your logo will appear inline, "This series on gamification is brought to you by HP", or similar.

Generate content

In B2B marketing, it's common to have content created for you, like a whitepaper or report. You can have this presented on a sponsored landing page or blog post, and the publisher will put a gate (like a form) in place to collect leads. In this case, you're getting both content and leads.

Create content for use outside their channel

You can even get creative services outside buying ads, for use elswhere – The Onion, Buzzfeed, and even The New York Times have in-house agencies to create content for you. New media sites are becoming experts at identifying what people care about and how to reach them in a way they'll share ("go viral," as they say).

Are native ads for me?

Yes – you're probably are doing some (like Search Ads), you just might think of them in a different category.

We know about banner blindness, but as ad-blockers become standard features (see: iOS 9's ad blockers), native ads will help get your message in front of people who would otherwise ignore it. And, like podcast ads, you're adding some trust to your message by building off the publisher you're sponsoring.

Brand building or lead-gen?

You can use native content for either type. Look at the examples above – blog syndication and thematic sponsorships make sense for awareness. Content creation and targeted in-stream ads can make for great lead generation. Talk to the publisher to figure out what's best based on your needs.

Where do I buy ads from?

There are ad exchanges, ad networks, ad management platforms, and independents – but there's no silver bullet (unless you're relying on an agency for all your ad buying).

You'll want to start by looking for relevant publications in your industry and see about working with them; another method is to ask your customers which publications they frequently read and see what's common across your customer base.

Most publishers will offer you two types of ads: display, which they'll syndicate from one or more networks, and native ads, which they'll typically sell in-house. Some publications are owned by larger parent companies, for example, Ars Technica and WIRED are both owned by Condé Nast, which can make buying ads on both sites a bit easier.

How much do they cost?

Promoted content and search ads have fairly well understood pricing models (auctions for audiences). But if you're looking to get content into a news feed, custom content, or sponsor a theme, prices are going to go up. For truly native content, expect starting at rates of $7,500 to $50,000 to run a one-time test, with fees going up to $250,000 or more for a full roll-out.

How long do they take?

You can have a promoted Tweet set up in 5 minutes, a blog sponsorship written by your team in a day. For something more complex, like a custom ad unit, a gated whitepaper, or a video, expect at least four and up to twelve weeks of lead-time to prepare content, build creative, testing, and publishing.


Native ads are the future of digital advertising. While they're complex and take time to execute, when they're well done they'll help you reach new audiences, build trust for your brand, and generate leads. It's an area worth exploring beyond AdWords.