How to tell native advertising from normal content

Sunday, 6 September, 2020

‘The cameraman couldn’t believe what happened next!’ ’34 Celebs you won’t believe are gay!’ ‘This game is impossible – prove us wrong!’

In recent years, it’s highly likely you’ll have noticed stories like this appearing on webpages you regularly visit.

It’s a phenomenon known as native advertising, and it’s big business nowadays.

Specialist advertising agencies make a fortune posting clickbait headlines and images on fan forums, online magazines, news portals, discussion groups and social media sites.

But what’s behind this swathe of sensationalist tabloid captions? And should you be wary about clicking links?

The times they are a-changin’

Native advertising is a direct response to two events – the decline of print media and the introduction of ad blocking technology.

Taking these in chronological order, print journalism has been in decline for decades as consumers increasingly digest content online rather than in newspapers or magazines.

These print publications have introduced online platforms, but without the revenue raised by cover prices and display advertising, their business models were unsustainable.

One attempted solution involved festooning websites with pop-up adverts, known variously as hover ads, pop-ups and interstitials.

That triggered a backlash not just from consumers, but also from tech firms.

Years ago, Google announced it would treat hover ads as a webpage’s primary content when it scanned that page, effectively destroying the page’s SEO value.

In response to growing consumer anger, meanwhile, web browsers and anti-malware firms began blocking pop-ups and interstitials as a matter of routine.

Thwarted at every turn, advertisers needed a new way to make consumers view and engage with marketing campaigns.

Enter native campaigns, providing numerous websites and publications with enough income to survive the collapse of traditional advertising.

Going native

Given the hyperbolic nature of their content, it seems almost counterintuitive that native ads are designed to blend into their surroundings.

View an ad on Facebook, and it’ll have fonts and background colours reminiscent of your timeline. View it on a red-top newspaper site, and the same ad will appear quite different.

The intention is to make native ads feel like part of the webpage you’re visiting, as if there’s no distinction between them and the primary content published by the site’s owners.

Native ads usually appear towards the bottom of a page, below a discreet ‘sponsored posts’ or ‘you might also like’ banner.

Clicking a story redirects your browser to the advertiser’s site, while your action will be logged by the native ad service – most commonly Taboola, Outbrain or Yahoo Gemini.

You’re likely to see targeted advertising from the relevant company or brand being advertised in future.

This may either be the same ad again, or a follow-up in a wider campaign intended to persuade you to complete a transaction.

It’s important not to be too mouse-happy with native adverts, which are never as interesting as their arresting headlines and photos imply.

They’re simply the latest form of online advertising, designed to circumvent ad blocking utilities.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!