What Is Native Advertising and How Does It Work?

While browsing your favorite website, you might encounter promoted or sponsored content. If you weren’t looking carefully, you probably couldn’t differentiate it from the site’s editorial content because the ads matched the site’s fit, feel, and messaging. This is native advertising.

In the right hands, native advertising can enrich a reader’s experience and increase brand awareness. At its worst, native ads alienate customers and erode trust. Before you begin a native ad campaign, make sure you understand the basics of responsible and effective native advertising.

Types of Native Advertising

Native advertising can appear in many forms, including editorial-style articles, videos, infographics, images, animation, game modules, and music playlists. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), a digital marketing industry group, there are six types of online native ads:

  1. In-feed native ads: A story or ad placed in the publication’s normal editorial feed that contains relevant, targeted information and might link to offsite content. Many of these ads look like traditional editorial articles, but are designated as “promoted” or “sponsored content.”
  2. Paid search ads: Ads that are included in organic search results.
  3. Recommendation widgets: Ads or content that is delivered in a publication’s main editorial feed via a third-party widget. The widget uses an algorithm to recommend advertising content that reflects the reader’s interests.
  4. Promoted listings: Catalog or directory listings that fit seamlessly into the site’s user interface and look almost identical to other listings. The advertiser pays a fee for preferential placement of its listing.
  5. Standard ads with “native elements”: Standard advertising that is outside the editorial feed but placed in a specific location to maximize its contextual impact.
  6. Custom ads: Native advertisements are constantly adapting to new digital technologies and consumer preferences. Agencies sometimes build creative and customized ad solutions for their clients.

Each of these types of native advertising varies in format and level of integration. However, they all serve the same purpose: fostering brand engagement and cultivating leads.

How to Use Native Advertising Responsibly

We’ve all seen native ads that are less than forthcoming about their purpose. These poorly-crafted native ads damage the brand and the digital platform’s credibility. Business owners and editors need consumers to trust them. If your company or media platform is seen as unscrupulous or deceitful, you’ll lose users and leads.

In 2013, The Atlantic published an advertorial touting Scientology’s increasing membership. The sponsored post included unsubstantiated claims and did not reflect the typically high standards of The Atlantic’s editorial content. To make matters worse, the magazine censored the Scientology ad’s comments, erasing any criticisms. Facing significant backlash, The Atlantic pulled the post within 24 hours, issued a series of apologies, and revised their native advertising policies, but the damage was already done.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) specifically referred to The Atlantic incident in its 2015 native advertising guidelines. The FTC broadly defines deception in native advertising, including publishing truthful product claims but failing to make the ad’s promotional nature obvious. They also state that, whomever creates or publishes deceptive native ads, you are liable for any harm the ads cause. While the FTC does not mandate a disclosure for clearly promotional content, the commission emphasizes that “the watchword is transparency.” For this reason, it’s typically in your best interest to warn readers that your native content is a paid promotion.

How Your Business Can Use Native Advertising

Native advertising is a growing, multi-billion dollar industry. In 2016, about 56% of ad revenue was from native ads. By 2021, native advertising will bring in an estimated 74% of ad revenue. While consumers might gripe about native ads, they seem to work. According to Sharethrough, a native advertising firm, people are 52% more likely to look at a native ad than a banner ad. Additionally, ad-blocking software will eliminate banner ads, but it doesn’t impact native, in-feed advertising.

Step One: Identify Your Target Audience

Before you start sponsoring advertorials online, you need to have a well-developed brand identity and a strong understanding of your client or customer personas. The goal of native advertising is to subtly reach your core customer base, foster brand recognition, and convert leads.

At LaFleur, we love talking about client or customer personas. When you’re building a native ad campaign, these personas are particularly important. First, you need to identify a publication or media platform that will reach your target audience. Second, you need to create content that appeals to and educates your target audience. If you don’t know who your target client or customer is, you’ll simply waste time and money on ineffective native ads.

Step Two: Build a Native Advertising Plan That Maximizes Your Budget

Small businesses and law firms probably aren’t going to purchase ad space on a Conde Nast magazine cover. However, that doesn’t mean that your native ads won’t reach your target audience. You should run cost-benefit analyses on your options, including in-feed ads in regional and niche publications, recommendation widgets, social media platforms, paid listings and search ads.

Step Three: Deliver Cohesive and Compelling Content

A native ad should reflect the form and voice of the hosting publication. However, that’s not the end of the process. If your native ad links to additional content on a landing page or your website, there should be continuity between the hosting platform and these secondary pages. For example, if your native ad promised “easy estate planning tips” on a parenting blog, don’t link to a highly technical and lengthy discussion of your state’s probate processes. Instead, deliver relevant advice that mimics the conversational tone of the hosting blog.

Remember, the goal of your native ad (and the related content) is to engage your clients and leads, encourage them to return to your site for more information, and initiate contact with your firm. If your content is dry, boring, or poorly written, it won’t build trust or brand awareness — and it certainly won’t encourage a reader to follow through on your call to action.

Need Help Developing Quality Native Advertising? Contact LaFleur Marketing!

Digital marketing never stops adapting. While native advertising has existed for centuries, digital native ads are a remarkably powerful tool. At LaFleur, we work with law firms, healthcare organizations, and growing businesses, building comprehensive marketing strategies that include websites, social media, email campaigns, and native advertising. Please contact us by either calling 888-222-1512 or completing this brief online form to learn more.


Boland, M. (2016, June 14). Native ads will drive 74% of all ad revenue by 2021. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-native-ad-report-forecasts-2016-5

Federal Trade Commission (2015). Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_

The native advertising playbook (2013, December 4). Interactive Advertising Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.iab.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/IAB-Native-Advertising-Playbook2.pdf

Native ads vs. banner ads. Sharethrough. Retrieved from http://sharethrough.com/resources/in-feed-ads-vs-banner-ads/

leigh ebrom content director

Leigh Ebrom is content director at LaFleur, a digital marketing agency that specializes in highly regulated industries. She earned her J.D. in 2003 from Valparaiso University School of Law and now uses her experience to connect firms and consumers nationwide. Leigh co-authored Digital Marketing for Law Firms: The Secrets to Getting More Clients and Better Cases with Chip LaFleur in 2020.