Pay to Play: The Evolution of Native Advertising

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Humphrey Muleba for Upsplash

Years ago, I used to write something then known as an “advertorial.” Mine were medical in nature, placed in the back quarter of magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal, targeting women consumers in certain geographic areas with content about local doctors, clinics, even hospitals.

Of course, they weren’t “ads.” We wouldn’t think of stooping to that level! These articles provided helpful information about, say, liposuction in general, before introducing Dr. John Doe and his particular philosophy of liposuction, why he loves what he does, and — oh, yes, he’s right around the corner from where you live and happens to be taking new patients right now.

Advertorials were a mashup of ads and compelling content that still had as goal to sell a service or product, but did so in a kinder, gentler, and actually more helpful way.

Those were the 90s. Fast-forward to 2019 and the advertorial has grown up, gotten itself a new home (the internet) and a new name (native advertising). Like the advertorials, marketers using native advertising are combining content with ads and placing them where their presence will feel seamless from the content presented elsewhere in the same context. The advertorials I wrote were often in a “medical” section of the magazines; native advertising is also positioned where it won’t be jarring, but flow naturally from what surrounds it.

In both cases, the goal is to obtain product placement without disrupting the user experience. The brand is paying the publisher to include its own presumably engaging branded content on a page that is contextually consistent and where it will be displayed prominently.

Of course, the field has widened and deepened: there’s native advertising now in so many venues that precise content targeting can be done extremely effectively. And social media sites are aggressively promoting native advertising on platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn — a fact that hasn’t escaped the vigilance of the FTC, which is trying to figure out how to regulate native advertising in order to protect consumers, who it apparently believes naïve enough to not see the difference in content.

If the FTC is on to something there (and I’m not sure I think it is), then it behooves marketers to pay attention as well. No one wants their content confused with somebody else’s. If I’ve paid my marketing team to come up with this great concept that’s going to really interest people in my brand, and add in the expense of paying the publisher to include it on a certain page, then I’m not getting my money’s worth if readers can’t tell the difference between my content and the publisher’s content, am I? Of course not. I’m going to look at the context in which it’s going to be placed and I’m going to dial up the impact as far as I can go. “You like that content? You ain’t seen nothing yet: take a look at this!”

Perhaps that’s the real difference in the evolution of the advertorial: at the end of the day, they were about selling. For content marketers, it’s more about providing a service to prospects and customers that will enhance their lives, enrich their understanding, pique their curiosity, and connect all of those services to a brand.

It’s marketing, sure. And in the final analysis, marketing is about sales. But while the route we’re taking these days may be a little more circuitous, it’s certainly a lot more rewarding from the customer’s point of view, and therefore will serve to connect marketers with their customers in ways that will ultimately promote brand acquisition and brand loyalty.

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Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at

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