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Let’s keep experimenting with native advertising

I’m glad people are talking about native advertising. Anything that helps drive relevance should be important to everyone in advertising, and native advertising does a great job at driving brand relevance on particular platforms.

Native advertising became 2012′s hot topic because advertisers were on the lookout for improved ad unit performance. For years we’ve been bemoaning the diminishing performance of banner ads–especially considering their current average click through rates (CTR) stand at around .05 percent (And no, I don’t think CTR is a very good measure of performance. But that’s a topic for another article.).

As an industry, we’ve been looking for units that drive better engagement, interactions, views, clicks, shares, etc. We’ve tried improving performance by changing banner sizes and by deploying rich media technologies. Some have worked well, but I think we all wish online advertising just worked better. And then along came native advertising and we all got excited.

Some examples of native advertising are promoted Tweets or Facebook ads. Tumblr also now promotes the content of “sponsors” (what they call advertisers). Just about every social network has their own type of ad unit including Foursquare and LinkedIn. Native ads usually refer to ad units that are native (and unique) to a particular environment. When these social networks started looking to monetize their audiences, they resisted using banners. Partly this was because they didn’t want to clutter their platforms and have them look like the rest of the web. Partly they were trying to reflect how their audiences were naturally using the platforms and wanted to find ways to promote brands in a way that felt natural. After all, only Twitter can do a promoted tweet; only Facebook can put an ad in a newsfeed.

As the idea of native advertising took off, pundits cried out that it wasn’t really anything new. I think a lot of folks working in print publishing were especially vocal. They said we’d been doing native advertising for as long as advertising existed. They pointed to print advertorials as proof . They claimed that advertorials were a great example of native advertising since it’s an example of an ad unit that can only run in very specific environment.

As soon as that conversation thread took off, the discussion around native advertising seemed to peter out. I was just at a conference and the term native advertising was a Bingo card answer. Anytime the phrase was spoken, the audience got to fill in one more spot on the card (other jargon words included RTB, programmatic and audience buying). But I think there’s still room to applaud native advertising techniques and uses.

The banner standardized digital advertising. In the early days of digital advertising, standardization was helpful and necessary. The banner gave us a currency, a creative framework and an advertising tool. But like all advertising techniques, digital advertising must evolve. I think native advertising is an evolutionary step.

I want publishers to develop formats that will work especially hard against their audiences on their platforms. I want publishers to care about how their platform looks (Secretly I am an aesthete). I’d like to see more publishers experiment with native advertising, especially when a lot of native ads are much more effective than what we currently have.