native advertising in action

Proof that native advertising works

In Content Strategy by Rob Johnson2 Comments

Native advertising works better than display ads and I can prove it. And to be honest, that makes me really uncomfortable. But if you’re not convinced by testimony by the New York Times, Wired, Slate and more, I can go one step further. I can give you numbers.

And I’ll also show you how you can really screw it up.

You see, right now, as marketers, we have the launch codes to this extraordinarily powerful weapon. Other marketers have had it before you. And they’ve used it to shoot themselves in the foot. And blame the weapon.


What is native anyway?

So let’s sort out the definitions before we go much further. Native advertising is a piece of content that looks like editorial in a particular website, publication or broadcast. It should be marked somewhere as an ad, or sponsored content, but it isn’t always.

There are two types of native advertising. One is interesting, relevant content supplied by a brand with the purpose of driving you from the publisher (or broadcast) back to them. The other is a press release attempting to close a sale on the spot.

Unfortunately, the most common form of native advertising is the latter. It would come out of exchanges like the following (which actually happened to me about 15 years ago):


The murky start of native advertising

We’re in a dark room on the ground floor of a Melbourne skyscraper. Dark grey cement walls stretch up to a high ceiling that disappears in gloom. The only light source is a lamp behind us. There’s four of us there: me (a humble magazine editor), my ad manager, the man from the ad agency… and the client. The agency guy is nervous. The client doesn’t say a word.

“So, Rob,” the agency guy says. “What do you feel about us … buying an ad … but instead of us giving you the ad … you write a story. About us.”

“Well,” I said, “if we disclose that it’s sponsored editorial …” I began.

The client leaned forward. “What if we didn’t?” he whispered. “What if we didn’t, you know, disclose…”


Hug your fans, don’t trick them

The worst type of native advertising is trying to trick readers into thinking they’re reading editorial. Readers hate that kind of stuff. In fact, the Reuters Digital News Report 2015 found that 33-to-43 per cent of readers feel disappointed or deceived if they find out content they have been reading is native advertising.

And that’s what makes me really uncomfortable about it. If you like and respect your audience, it is counter-intuitive to try to trick them.

And there is another way.

[Tweet “Rather than tricking readers, why not use it to charm them?”]


Our native experiment

As an experiment, in one of our newsletters, we ran a tiny native advertising piece beside a much more prominent display ad. Both were for the same product—a blogging website and service called Your Blog (which we own).

The ad was a skyscraper—the largest bit of digital inventory you can buy, and the biggest single image on the page. Here’s a screen grab of the bottom-half of the page, with percentage clickthroughs on each post.

Our native advertising experiment.

Our native advertising experiment.

The numbers on the image are hard to see, so if you can’t zoom in, I can tell you what they are. The “Who has the time to blog” display ad on the right-hand-side got 0.52 per cent of clickthroughs.

The advertorial for the same product—buried at the end of the newsletter, and headed with the word “advertorial”—got 10.47 per cent of all clickthroughs. It was the third-best performing piece of content there.

To put it another way, the native advertising got 23 times the rate of engagement than the display ad.

We’re seeing this time and time again. It’s why we are selling that advertorial position as a premium spot, even though it is less visible than the display ads. Some of the more successful campaigns have had up to 50 times the engagement of the surrounding display ads.

We’ve all heard about banner blindness for years. But then one banner ad campaign somewhere will work, and it will be championed as the proof that it all works.

It doesn’t. The numbers don’t lie.

We have run similar native ads in print magazines, and have heard anecdotally from advertisers about similar results (when they’ve tracked it).

Now, there is still a place for display advertising. If you have plenty of budget but limited time, display remains the best way to blast a message out to find an audience. Unless you were prepared to tailor your native ad to every platform it appeared on.


Where it will stop working

However, native ads will stop working if we as marketers abuse their power. Cast your mind back to that statistic from the Reuters study. Readers can get a negative impression of your brand if they click through to find an article that is all about you.

I believe the reason readers engaged with the native ad because they could see the benefit, without a hard sell or a bit of over-emotive clickbait.


The only goal worth chasing

The next logical step in the process of creating native content like that is to own the platform. Let’s face it, if you can drive readers back to a site you own, that’s far better than paying to access them through someone else’s site.

I don’t believe native advertising will be this effective for ever, because I believe the best native advertising will morph into something like content marketing. The worst will be press releases on other people’s publications that no-one reads. Those are the only two logical directions it can go in.


What to do next

If you’re curious to read a bit more on the logical path of native advertising to content marketing, it’s a topic we’ve tackled on our site before.

Or you might think, I’ve got to make my writing more powerful. We agree! There are five very easy to understand secrets you can use to make your writing more emotive. And more emotive writing leads to more engagement, which leads to more sales.

And if you want more articles like this, why not sign up to our newsletter. It’s a monthly email with three original articles on either content marketing, content strategy or content production. Feel free to use them to make your content, and your content marketing, better and more effective than ever before!

Finally, if you disagree with anything I’ve said here, please feel free to leave a comment. We do read them and comment back, and I’m more than happy to discuss it with you.


  1. Pingback: Native and branded content best practice | Content marketing agency Sydney

  2. Well said! There is no dead to native advertising as long as the needs and demands still exist. For example, Rimmel installation advertising and McDona’d’s coffee promotion. I bet no one would have missed at seeing these installations. The chance of getting noticed is much higher here!

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