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Native advertising for SMEs: Why and how native ads can enhance brand awareness and increase sales

11 minute read

Polly Kay
Polly Kay

The owners and decision-makers of SMEs rarely have the benefit of an in-house marketing department or consultant on hand, and so often, aren’t fully conversant with the various pros and cons of different marketing approaches and how to action them.

Native advertising is potentially a very valuable marketing approach for SMEs, but knowing how to create and place effective native ads isn’t always simple. In this article, I will explain what native advertising is, and how native ads can help SMEs to enhance brand awareness and increase sales.

I will also provide some guidance on how to find viable host portals for native ads, and how to create or commission effective content to use on them.

What are native ads, and where can you find them?

Native advertising or native ads are a type of advert that is designed to emulate or complement the core content of the platform that hosts it. When we talk about native advertising today, we are usually referring to online native ads, but offline platforms such as magazines and newspapers also commonly host native ads too.

Perhaps the best-known form of native ads (and the most widely utilised) are articles or editorials that are intended to mimic the type of organic content present on the host platform, so that the reader of the content transitions seamlessly between organic content and native ad content without an obvious disconnect or switch in tone and style.

Ads of this type are sometimes referred to as advertorials, a term that is often used interchangeably with “native ads.” The word “native” in this context indicates the cohesion and matching of the language style, tone, and content type of the native ad with its host portal.

Essentially, native ads (regardless of their format) should come across as if they were written for or by one of the platform’s organic contributors, and in some cases, they may even have been written by such a person on behalf of the client.

Native advertising when done right should blend seamlessly with the other content on the portal hosting it, and be constructed in such a way as to take a softer approach to achieving its goals than traditional hard sell or promotional types of content. When read or consumed by someone who visited the host portal, the content, style and tone of the native advert itself should be virtually indistinguishable from the accompanying organic content.

Native ads can be found on all manner of websites serving a wide range of niches (such as this native ad placed on Buzzfeed by Harper Collins) as well as in newspapers, magazines, on social media sites, within apps and games, and virtually anywhere else you can think of too.

Within this article, I will mainly be talking about editorial-style native ads, which may be used either online or in print.

How can you tell a native ad from organic content?

The whole key to successful native ads is that they blend seamlessly with their host content, which means that the reader is more receptive to the content’s message and potentially, call to action than they would be if they were reading an obvious advert.

The match of the type of content used and the way it is presented to emulate that of the platform hosting it also incentivises the reader to read the ad and engage with it in the first place; it helps to prevent them from disregarding it or avoiding it specifically because it is an ad.

However, the Advertising Standards Authority states very clearly that any type of advert served to audiences in the UK must fulfil a number of criteria in order to remain permissible, and one of the foundations of this is that the ad must not mislead people, which means that it must be clearly marked as an ad.

The key elements of the guidance provided to ensure that native ads are compliant with the ASA’s rules and do not mislead prospects are as follows:

  • Native ads (or advertorials) must be clearly distinguishable from editorial (or organic) content on the host platform.
  • The content itself should not be integrated in such a way that it can no longer be identified as an ad.
  • Potentially misleading terms to describe the native ad such as “sponsored content” “brand publisher” or “in association with our partners” should be avoided.

In reality, this means that compliant native ads must be clearly marked out in a prominent position as being an advert, and it also means that ads placed for such native content across other areas of the web also need to indicate that the content linked through to is an ad.

When a prospect clicks through to a native ad, one of the first things that they will see within a compliant ad is an indicator that the content itself is promotional or designed to advertise. This, of course, takes away some of the effectiveness of the content in a way, because the reader’s mindset will automatically change when they understand the angle of the piece, even if they remain receptive to its message.

However, assuming your headline or incentive to view the native ad itself is strong and appropriate (and that the content on the page itself also incentivises the reader to continue), the reader is likely to engage with the content anyway if it delivers something of interest to them.

Why are native ads so valuable for brands and businesses?

Native ads can be highly effective for building brand awareness and perception and highlighting specific products and services. But for them to be effective for these purposes they need to take a fairly subtle, brand-led approach rather than coming over as a hard sell or direct response promotion.

Native ads that are well written to match the host portal and that are appropriately placed and incentivised will appeal to the reader anyway, as the type of content or topic posted and the style it is presented in segues naturally in and out of the accompanying organic content, producing a seamless user experience.

A prospect that is looking for things to entertain themselves with using a certain type of host portal will be receptive and open to reading native ad content if it catches their eye or provides value to them, and continues to engage them to the end.

If your native ad content is strong enough to pique the interest and vitally, provide value for the reader and not just the brand, people looking for information or entertainment that you can provide will already be primed by their journey through the host’s other content to be receptive to an ad of this type.

This provides a virtually unique opportunity to raise brand awareness and reach out to prospects where they hang out, socialise, or look for ways to pass the time, and in such a way as to maximise the chances of engagement and retention of the message or goal of the content itself.

What is the hallmark of a good native ad?

Although the fact that native ads have to be marked out as ads to readers might seem like a major impediment to their potential effectiveness, a good native ad should stand on its own merits sufficiently to incentivise viewing and reading on the part of the prospect in spite of the caveat that the content is an advert.

Here are some of the core traits that all good, effective native ads share:

  • Native ads should never be misleading, questionable, or questionably notated as an advert.
  • They are placed on an appropriate host portal that is used by or appeals to the same demographic or demographics as the ad itself is designed for.
  • The native ad content is complementary to the other types of content within the host portal, in terms of the topic areas covered, the layout and format of the content, and the tone, style and language choice used within it.
  • The content of the article has interest or value for the reader of the host portal.
  • The header, intro, ingoing links to the content and external ads for the native ad itself all need to be strong and appropriate enough to serve as an incentive to read the content.
  • In terms of how the promotional element of a native ad’s content is handled and portrayed (such as its call to action, goal, or outgoing links), this needs to be managed very carefully to simultaneously get the relevant message across without continually reminding the prospect that the piece is an ad, even if they are already consciously aware of this.
  • If the message or tone of the native ad is too pushy or comes over as highly promotional rather than designed to engage, inform or entertain, this loses readers and effectiveness. Determining the goal for the content and how it will be achieved needs to be handled carefully.

How can SMEs identify host portals to place native ads on?

Before you start exploring your options for the type of native ad content to post and what you want it to achieve, you first need to identify viable host portals to place your content on. This is the first step of the process because everything about the ad itself (from its topic to its content to its approach, tone and style) needs to be bespoke designed to fit in with the content on the host portal.

There are a number of approaches that SMEs can use to identifying appropriate host portals, and finding out whether or not they are receptive to placing content.

First of all, there are a number of ad agencies that serve as brokerages between host portals and advertisers, which either concentrate exclusively on native ad placement or that offer a range of services and packages including native ads. Using a service such as this can help to take the hard work out of finding, approaching and negotiating with potential host portals, and they may also be able to create or commission content appropriate to the platforms that they represent too.

Many websites and publications offer options for native ads within their wider advertising offerings, and information about this can generally be found within the sections of the website or publication that deals with ad enquiries – or provides details of who to contact for more information.

Another approach is to find websites, publications, blogs or other forms of collateral that would be a good fit for the type of content you wish to post, and which attract readers and visitors from your target demographics.

Many of these (particularly large, busy sites, publications with a wide circulation and popular blogs that receive a lot of traffic) will already have hosted native ads or be willing to consider doing so, and again, may provide guidance and instructions on how to go about setting them up.

Bloggers and influencers that monetise their content in various ways may have a dedicated PR page on their website that provides information on services they offer to advertisers (including potentially native ads). Alternatively, they may notate their website and social media accounts as being “PR friendly” which is an industry-recognised term to indicate a site or individual that is receptive to accepting adverts or promotional partnerships.

Even if a portal such as a website or blog has never hosted a native ad before, it can be worth asking – the worst they can say is no, and sites that are not already in huge demand with native ad publishers might be more willing to take a punt, and less likely to charge you a premium for doing so too.

The placement, timing and promotion of native adverts

Finding out or agreeing on the publication date of your native ad is something you should take care of prior to creating your content, as this information may help to inform the content itself.

There may be some negotiation to take care of with your host portal about where the content will appear, how prominently it will be showcased when it will go live, and how it will be promoted. All of these factors can affect the cost of placing your native ad, as well as its efficacy – and once more, knowing the plan in advance is helpful for informing the content at the creation stage.

How much prominence your content is given on the host portal and how widely the portal promotes it themselves will have a huge impact on how many people see it and have a chance to engage with it, so make sure you are clear about this and happy with how your content will be presented before you commit.

The time and date your content launches on can also affect the interest shown in it, and how long it stays on people’s radars for. If your content drops at the same time as another large promotion or in competition with a hot piece on the host portal, how this affects your own engagement rates can be variable.

Competing against popular content is not always the best idea, but on the flipside, if that content brings people into the platform itself and your own content is well promoted and incentivised when they get there, this can result in an uptick in traffic too.

The type of content your own post appears alongside is important too, and topics that are related to it or that are also relevant to your prospects’ interests are obviously a better fit than random topics.

Confirm with your host how they intend to promote and showcase your content too; will it appear prominently in suggestions and related content, or will it simply drop off the front page within a day or so?

Constructing or commissioning effective content for a native ad

When you have identified a host portal for your native ad and agreed on the basics of how to proceed, the next step is to determine an appropriate topic and approach for the content and get down to creating it. How you do this also comes with several options.

Option one is of course to create the content for the host portal yourself, potentially (and advisably) inviting the host portal or agency representing them to perform a final edit or make suggestions on ways to improve the content so that it achieves the most seamless fit with the rest of the content on the host portal.

Option two is to commission a content writer or copywriter to compose the content for you, based on a detailed brief of your requirements and research on the host portal itself.

Option three is to ask the ad agency or host portal you are using to commission or create the content for the post on your behalf. How much input you have into this can be variable, depending on your preferences; you may wish to provide a topic and a goal only, or indicate a preference for the structure and details of what you want, whilst leaving the creation side of it to the other party.

However you decide to go about creating or commissioning your content, here are some of the key points to bear in mind when doing so, and to use as a benchmark to compare the finished result to.

  • Do plenty of research into the platform itself.
  • Identify the type of demographics you want to reach, and ensure that you can find them via the platform you will be using.
  • Look at the site’s most popular and trending posts for guidance.
  • Brainstorm viable topic ideas that will appeal to the host site’s users and check that they have not been covered before.
  • Choose a topic that is complementary to your goals, and which will enable you to get your message across and integrate calls to action and links subtly and organically without weakening the value of the content for the reader or making your native ad overtly sales-y.
  • Formulate a structure and layout for the piece – does a longform article work best (and suit the platform’s readership preferences) or would a list-style article or slideshow work better?
  • Determine and outline the appropriate language tone, style and approach for the piece as befits the target audience.
  • Create the content itself, adding in direct references to your brand or product sparingly and with care so that your native ad serves first and foremost as something the reader wants to finish or finds value in, without a strong sales angle or pushy style.
  • Ensure that your headers and titles for the piece are strong in every way – from enhancing SEO to incentivising clicks and link-throughs, to promoting sharing and commentary from the readers.
  • When you have a completed piece or have a piece that is largely where you want it to be, compare it to other content on the platform you are using and see how it compares. Does it blend seamlessly with the other content and form a plausible part of the site’s collateral, or is the tone or approach somewhat jarring? Are your titles and headers presented in the type of format and style the platform’s readers recognise and appreciate?
  • Ask the host platform or their representative to offer pointers and direction for your finished piece, and don’t be afraid to keep fine-tuning things until you are totally confident in your content and its ability to achieve your goals.
  • Tie the piece off with a reference to your company or brand and a link to find out more, interact, or ask questions, again without angling this as a direct call to purchase.

Measuring the effectiveness of a native ad campaign

In order to assess the value of your native ad campaign and determine whether or not this type of approach is worth your time and money in the future, you need to integrate metrics to measure how well your content performs.

To do this you first need to set a goal and determine how you can measure your content against it; for instance, do you wish to raise brand awareness, promote a specific product or service, win clicks to your site, or make sales?

Determining what you want to achieve will tell you what type of metrics to measure, and you should ensure that the host portal is set up to provide the insights and data that you need to support this.

If your host portal cannot tell you what you need to know – such as how many people clicked through to your ad, how long they remained there, where they went next and if they followed any links contained within your main native ad – find out why.

These are all basic metrics that any website selling ad space of any type should be willing and able to provide, so if this is not the case, the site might not be right for you.

You also need to ensure that your own website or the destination of outgoing links within your content are set up to be able to track incoming hits and the visitor’s journey and that these metrics will work with the data you can draw from the host portal.

Finding that your native ad isn’t performing well, not getting views or not achieving your goals can, of course, be disheartening and expensive, but it can also help you to identify what hasn’t worked and why to design better content in the future.

If, on the other hand, your native ad achieves exactly what you wished for or surpasses your expectations, the process of composing and placing future native ad campaigns becomes easier and more efficient.

Polly Kay

Polly Kay is a British copywriter and content writer with a digital marketing background. After studying Marketing (BA Hons) at university, she first honed her skills as a copywriter by working in-house for an award-winning creative agency in London before branching out on her own in 2012. Today, Polly Kay Copywriting and Content Writing serves clients ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK to well-known multinational brands. Polly specialises in SEO-friendly content writing for online use, and both brand-led and direct response copywriting for all applications.

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