Native Advertising: Ethics and Best Practices

In our previous posts, we spoke about the definition of native advertising and the various forms it takes. In our final installment, we will explore the ethical issues surrounding native ads as well as some best practices to follow in order to ensure that your content is being given the best chance at success.

A recent study by IPG Media Lab showed that consumers are 25% more likely to look at a native ad than at a banner ad and that they look at them 53% more frequently. But the question remains – are these views the result of effective advertising or has the audience been tricked into engaging with the ad?

Since the publisher site controls the dissemination of the content, it can be argued that engagement metrics are more of a measurement of the publisher’s ability to distribute the content effectively than of the efficacy of the content itself. Combine this with the lack of regulations on the publisher side, and you have a situation where potential ethical issues can arise.


On the Society of Professional Journalist’s site lives a code of ethics, one of which states that journalists should “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines.” However, the notion that online publishers or advertisers have to live by the same codes of ethics as journalists do is a more difficult position to argue.

A publisher’s job is to distribute content that generates interest from its readership and, in turn, revenue for the publisher and salaries for its writers. Once upon a time, this revenue came from subscriptions. But along with the internet came the notion that all content should be free, which has created a major issue for traditional publications, as they have seen their subscriber base deteriorate and their primary revenue stream shift to impression-based advertising. The pressure to pump out content to remain relevant while dealing with a deteriorating subscriber base has led to the rise of paid content, and its most recent iteration – native advertising.

But this solution creates a whole new set of ethical and operational issues. Publishers must balance their regular content with paid content, identify it as such, and ensure it is relevant to the page. As with regular content, if paid content becomes irrelevant or misses the mark, publishers run the risk of alienating their readership. Done incorrectly, readers will abandon the site and visits will decrease along with advertising revenue.

“We Screwed Up.”

This quote is the first line of an official statement from Atlantic Monthly, which created a backlash among its readers when it experimented with a native ad written by the Church of Scientology on their website. The Atlantic posted an advertorial that praised the church of scientology and its leader, David Miscavige. The ad was called out as sponsored content with a yellow label, but received a huge amount of criticism because it didn’t fit with their brand. The publication was forced to take down the advertorial 11 hours later. However, despite the backlash, the Atlantic Monthly continues to support sponsored content and generates more than half of its advertising revenue from such sources.

Many publishers learned a valuable lesson form the Atlantic’s mistake, and the lack of clear regulations has made trial and error the de facto process for establishing best practices for native advertising. The IAB’s official stance on native ad labeling is as vague as its definition of native ads, simply acknowledging the need for publishers to call out their sponsored content in such a way that the average reader can distinguish between the sponsored and non-sponsored content, but not laying any actual ground rules for how this should be accomplished.

Luckily, the pressure on advertisers is much less than that of publishers, and the landscape is slowly starting to become clearer. In the Atlantic Monthly example, the Church of Scientology did very well with all of the publicity, leaving the publisher to take most of the heat. It is difficult to blame an advertiser for promoting their products in the paces they determine to be a good fit, as long as they do it smartly.

Best Practices

Through our research of these issues Mad Fish has identified a few best practices that we recommend to make sure advertisers get the most out of native advertising efforts:

  • Leave Your Agenda at Home: Native advertising often works best with no agenda connected to brand. Generating content that is more topical and unbiased lends itself to more seamless integration into the news content and therefore a higher click through rate.
  • Repurpose Your Content: While there are a few platforms that pull directly from your blog content, we don’t recommend letting your blog posts double as native ad articles. Readers that come from other news sites will not have as much patience with your article as frequent visitors to your blog do. Reformat your post to speak to a slightly less engaged audience, and avoid industry jargon and heavier topics.
  • Benefit the User: Create content that is actually valuable to the user. Videos, tips and tricks, and timely articles about important topics will always work better than generic posts.
  • Be Genuine: Don’t get too irreverent with your copy, but remember you are trying to have an impact among the other content crowded around you. While headlines and descriptions should encourage readers to read your article, avoid writing “clickbait” headlines, written specifically for the purpose of encouraging a click. Examples include top ten lists, “you won’t believe what happens next,” and vague or sensationalized headlines to describe a topic that is fairly innocuous or straightforward. Be creative and willing to stand out from the crowd, but make sure it is genuine.
  • Know Your Audience: The Church of Scientology did not suffer nearly the level of backlash that the Atlantic Monthly did, but that does not mean that the publisher bears all the responsibility for messaging. Advertisers need to know where their ads are being placed and be able to match the tone and purpose of the site or social platform that is distributing the ad to get the most out of their native advertising efforts.

We hope you have enjoyed this series on native advertising. Please stay tuned for our upcoming webinar, and always feel free to give us a call if you need help with native advertising strategy, execution, or reporting.