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Native Advertising: How to Maximize Your Conversions in 2020

July 13, 2020
Michelle Martin
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Native advertising hides in plain sight. That's exactly why it's so powerful.

Native ads follow the same look and format as organic content on the publisher's site and are almost indistinguishable as ads. Native advertising flows seamlessly with organic content to create an experience that doesn't feel like an ad.

The Evolution of Native Ads

Picture this: the internet of 1999. Banner ads everywhere. Rotating, flashing, brightly colored GIF ads on everything from AOL to Geocities. It was like marketers were let loose on the Las Vegas Strip and brought back pieces of the neon city to those early dial-up days.

Over time, we've gotten better as a society about web design. We're classy now, you know?

But ad fatigue is the modern-day marketer's enemy. Consumers are used to retargeting ads following them around. They’re used to seeing a bus ad or billboard on the way to work and then a commercial for the same brand once they're unwinding on the couch at night. Same old, same old.

Native ads shake up the status quo.

Native Advertising: A Definition

Native advertising is paid media that precisely matches a publication’s typical content. Good native ads should feel organic.

Consumers know what a native ad is. We're all wise to sponsored content, brand deals, in-feed ads and the like. But the interesting thing? Consumers like native ads.

A report by The Association of Online Publishers found 59% of consumers viewed native ads as interesting and 33% said they trust native ads more than conventional display ads.

Why? Because native ads feel like the content they already want to read or watch.

That familiarity breeds trust, even before they experienced the whole ad. The old sales catchphrase holds true: "People buy from people they know, like and trust." With native advertising, you're instantly putting your brand in front of a warm audience who are already expecting to like the content they read.

Winner, winner, sales for dinner.

We'll cover 4 types of native ads, with examples, and walk you step-by-step through creating a native advertising campaign for your business.

Before we start, however…

Are Native Ads the Same as Sponsored Content?

No, and here's why.

Sponsored content is most often associated with Instagram influencers: a trendy product shot and a smiling face with a caption about how much Influencer Ashley loves her new multivitamin. These aren't native ads because the publisher is still creating the content. It's an ad, but the influencer is the one creating it and (hopefully) delivering what their audience wants to see.

A native ad is created by the brand, led by the brand and placed onto the publisher's site or social channel like a conventional ad is purchased. However, it looks and feels like the publisher's original content.

Here are a few native campaign examples to illustrate the difference:

Types of Native Advertising Campaigns

1. Articles

Probably the most recognizable native ad format is a paid article, where a brand creates a story around their product or service and pays to insert that on a publisher's website. This can be anything from a sponsored full-length article to a short social media post.

It isn’t just for industry publications, either. Native ads can be found pretty much everywhere, including The New York Times.

For instance:

Native ads can be found pretty much everywhere, including The New York Times.

The format meshes seamlessly with other articles. The only indication it's an ad is the "Paid Post" label above the headline.

Another example is from viral hitmaker Buzzfeed. This really shows the difference between sponsored content and a native ad.

With sponsored content, the brand is paying the publisher to write something just for it, from its own perspective.

With a native ad, the brand creates the ad and the publisher publishes it. End of story. It's paying for eyeballs on a brand's content, exactly how conventional advertising has worked for decades.

Let's look at a campaign Volkswagen did with Buzzfeed Brazil in 2019. The automaker placed 3 native ads on the site, with a goal to raise awareness about their new car launching in Brazil that year.

The articles covered a trip around Sao Paulo featuring the car in action and visiting various places VW's affluent target market would enjoy: an upscale restaurant, a spa and an adrenaline-filled indoor theme park.

Volkswagen in 2019 placed 3 native ads on the Buzzfeed Brazil site with a goal to raise awareness about their new car launching in Brazil that year.

The native campaign was tested against a control group who saw a traditional ad campaign for the car. The native campaign resulted in an 18-point lift in brand awareness, showing the power of what well-targeted native ads can do.

2. In-App Ads

Native ads work extraordinary well in apps.

In the following examples, each of the ads blends in with the look and feel of the app, which is the whole point.

Navigation app Waze offers ads based on a user's planned route or location. They pop up in the user's trip like this one for McDonald’s, which is tempting the driver with breakfast since a McDonald's restaurant is on the planned route.

Navigation app Waze offers ads based on a user's planned route, like this one for McDonald’s.

Facebook news feed ads are perhaps the best-known example of in-feed native advertising. As you scroll, Facebook inserts ads periodically down your screen. They're clearly ads, but the look and feel of the post match the site’s format exactly. The only way to tell it's an ad (besides the obvious self-promotion) is the word "sponsored" at the top.

Perhaps the best-known example of in-feed native ads are Facebook news feed ads.

This works well because you never feel "jarred" away from the app or what you were looking at before you saw the ad. Remember the Las Vegas Strip? Sometimes the worst way to ask for attention is to shout, "Look at me!" By following the same style as your friends' pool party pics and Instagrammable dinner creations, the ad is more likely to catch your eye by using a format you're already expecting.

3. Promoted Search Results

These are native ads, too, because they match the site's existing format.

Pinterest's promoted pin ads are a good example of this. Can you spot the ad?

The advertisement for La-Z-Boy doesn't feel like an ad because it matches the style of the regular posts so well.

Clearly, it's for the La-Z-Boy chair in the middle, but at first glance, it doesn't feel like an ad because it matches the style of the regular posts so well.

Etsy does this well with search listing ads, too. The first 4 listings are always ads.

The format is so similar to an organic search result, with the only difference being a small "Ad by (store name)" under the listing, versus just the store name in the organic ones.

4. Multimedia

Native ads aren't only text, as General Electric's successful 8-week podcast series on cryptography, "The Message," proves.

The podcast skyrocketed to the Top 10 on Apple Podcasts and won the 2016 Webby for Best Use of Native Advertising. It received more than 4 million downloads and some 187,143,070 earned impressions.

So why did it work so well? Partly because of the content format. Podcasts are on-trend, sure, and GE found a way to combine the best things people love about podcasts ?— convenience, storytelling, suspense, education ?— with classic marketing strategies, such as the show's interactive game that played out on Reddit.

You can stick with tried-and-true content formats such as listicles and articles, but if you're willing to take a risk on the production costs of a podcast or video series, the payoff for being truly unique can be massive.

How to Create a Native Advertising Campaign

Native advertising is on the rise in 2020. About half of all publishers offer native advertising already. According to The Native Advertising Institute, native advertising accounted for 31% of annual ad revenue for those publishers, and that’s predicted to rise to 46% by 2021. Native ad spending by U.S. brands has steadily risen every year, from $16 billion in 2016 to a forecasted $52 billion in 2020, according to Statista.

Here is everything you need to know to create your own native campaign from start to finish.

Prepare for Your Native Advertising Campaign

1. Set a Goal

As with any other marketing activity, you need to define your goal before starting.

What do you want? Brand awareness? Increase sales for a new product or service launch? Subscribers? Email addresses?

Your goal can be either branding-based (awareness, traffic) or performance-based (sales, subscribers, another type of measurable action).

Whatever it is, choose only one goal.

2. Define the Audience

You already know this step, too, and it's the same for a native advertising campaign.

Who is your audience and what do they want?

A successful native ad campaign has one clearly defined goal and one clearly defined target audience.

Maybe you're a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company that serves multiple industries, such as health care, app developers and e-commerce. Because all those people are likely to hang out in different spaces, your first native ad campaign should focus on only one of those industries.

Let's use app developers as an example.

3. Make a List of Publishers to Consider

Create a list of all the influential publications and voices within your target community. Where do they hang out? What websites do they read? Who are the thought leaders in the space?

For app developers, the list could look like:


You get the idea.

Check out each publication and get a feel for their audience and content. You may cross a few off your list if they don't align with your brand or aren't as relevant as others. For example, if your platform caters mostly to iOS developers, you're not going to create an ad on an Android developer site, right?

4. Customize Each Ad

Your first campaign could be with only one publisher. But if you're going to use multiple publishers, make sure you don't run the same ad in all of them.

This isn't like display ads where customers are used to seeing the same ones across multiple sites.

For a native ad to be successful, it needs to match the publisher's content and style so each one really needs to be unique. Native ads are about blending in and making sense to the audience who's already there.

For example, this ad from H&R Block on the popular satire website The Onion wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.

This ad from H&R Block on the popular satire site The Onion wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.

The Onion's audience would expect nothing less than cheeky humor. But this wouldn't fly on a more serious financial news site such as the Financial Post or Bloomberg.

What to Include in Your Native Ad

1. Tell a Story

A native ad shouldn't read like an ad. It needs to be engaging, like a piece of content someone browsing that site would be looking for anyway.

A native ad for the television show “King of the Nerds” on Gawker did an excellent job of roping readers in right away.

The ad starts with a quote and describes how "nerdy girls" are now "adorkable." The story quickly captures the intended target audience — self-proclaimed and proud nerds ?— as well as works in the ad's call to action (CTA) early on: to watch the show.

This ad does a good job of matching Gawker's formatting and the only way to determine it's even an ad is by hovering over the tags to reveal "Advertisement" as one of them. (A bit sly, as most native ads are disclosed a little more obviously than this.)

That's the whole point: We want people to feel like they're reading an article they'd be interested in from that publisher even if it wasn't paid content.

2. Have a Clear CTA

As with any other ad, your native ad should have one clear call to action. There are 2 places to mention it:

  1. Near the beginning (first 1-2 paragraphs, if it's an article format)
  2. At the end

What your CTA is will depend on your goal. It could be as simple as "Buy my product" or "Subscribe on YouTube," etc. Or you could be selling tickets to an event, running a contest or anything else you want people to do.

This may seem simple but it's especially important to include near the beginning, so don't forget, yeah?

3. Direct Traffic to the Right Place

If your goal is a conversion, don't direct people to your homepage and leave them there.

Create a unique offer for those readers to appeal to them. For example, offer them something in exchange for their email address to get into your funnel.

Using our app developers as an example, let's say you ran a native ad on all about your new SaaS platform for creating iOS apps. But your company has Android solutions and a bunch of other stuff, too.

Don't send those people who are clearly interested in iOS development to your homepage. They'll have too many options in front of them, which means too many options to not do anything and click away.

Create a landing page for this audience. Maybe just talking about your iOS coding platform, or even offering a free demo or coupon discount for them to try it out.

Think about your publisher's audience. What do they want? What can you create to complement your ad that moves them closer to your goal?

4. Experiment

Again, as with any ad campaign, you can't do it once and suddenly have a money-making formula on your hands. (If this happens to you ... then I hate you.)

Experiment with different audiences, publishers, content formats (articles, videos, listicles, e-books, etc.) and types of ad creative and copy. Experimentation methods could be their own entire article, but safe to say you want to, at the extreme minimum, run A/B tests on creative (images and copy) and headlines.

Keep track of your campaign results and you'll soon have real data to inform tweaks to future native ad campaigns.

Native Advertising Opportunities Abound

Native ads result in a 52% higher purchase intent than conventional ads, and up to an 82% lift in brand awareness, according to studies by ShareThrough and Nielsen. With numbers like those, it's easy to see why native advertising is a smart choice for paid content in 2020 and beyond.

As with any new ad strategy, you may have to experiment a lot before getting it right. But the payoff will be well worth your efforts.

The most important elements of a successful native advertising campaign are to:

  1. Set one specific goal.
  2. Define a target audience. This could be broad if your goal is brand awareness, or narrow if your goal is a specific type of conversion or market.
  3. Put together a list of publishers.
  4. Create unique ads tailored for each publisher. This is the most important part. Native ads mean native: they should look like they belong on the publisher's site, paid or not.
  5. Tell a story. Draw in your audience with truly engaging content, not sales-y mumbo jumbo.
  6. Include a clear CTA.
  7. Consider a landing page. Some native ads can link back to your main website, but for specific products, launches, promotions or other goals, you'll want to create a customized landing page specifically for that native ad audience. You'll get more conversions that way.
  8. Lastly: Experiment and test. Different ad headlines, copy, creative. Different publishers. Different target audiences. Different goals. Test it all to find your winning formula.

As consumers become increasingly tired of conventional ads and install more ad blockers in their browsers, native ads are a way to achieve your brand awareness and sales objectives without beating people over the head with it.

And, really, do you want your ad strategies to stay in the Neanderthal era? I didn't think so.

Native ads are where it's at in 2020 for conversions and building trust with your ideal customers.

Not a fan of the do-it-yourself approach? Sit back and let Kantaloupe create a strategic and performance-driven native advertising campaign for you.


Michelle Martin

Michelle Martin is a freelance copywriter for business-to-business, software-as-a-service companies looking to stand out and scale up. She is an ex-agency producer and marketing strategist known for quickly understanding and distilling complicated technical topics into conversational copy that gets results.

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