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16/10/2013 13:03 BST | Updated 21/10/2013 16:29 BST

So What Exactly Is Native Advertising?

“The content agenda is really massive now… Everybody is talking about content. Everybody. If you are a social media editor, a digital agency, media editing, an ad agency, a PR agency, they are all talking about content.” ~ Sean King, CEO of Seven, an award-winning content marketing agency.

Up until now, native advertising has lacked a clear, concise definition. It is often scooped up in the bucket labelled ‘branded content’, but that doesn’t take into account the specific requirements needed to make a piece of content ‘native’. We believe native is a distinct discipline in its own right; related to, but not just a derivative of, branded content.

This lack of definition is a problem. It makes native advertising seem woolly, ephemeral, faddish, and slows down the growth of confidence and understanding across the industry. Only recently, at the AOP Autumn Conference, it was described dismissively as ‘a US import’ and ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. As Phil Reay-Smith, Head of Media at Ogilvy PR says: “Native advertising is one of those phrases that people use a lot, but don’t always understand. So it does demand defining.”

Another problem is the nature of native itself. Chances are you’ve come across it already (if not on this site, then elsewhere), and not even realised. Carla Buzasi, Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post, says: “If you are logging onto a website at the moment, chances are at some stage you are going to come across native advertising, you just don’t know it. This is about a client’s wish to get closer to and talk to people in a more natural way than they have done in the past.”

Therefore, our first priority when embarking on this project was to ensure we arrived at a concise definition, enabling us to then clearly identify what does and what doesn’t constitute a piece of native advertising.

As the videos on this site show, our expert interviews brought a wealth of fascinating insight into this subject. Vitally, they represent every discipline for whom native is a ‘live’ issue; Publishing, Media, Advertising, Content, Marketing, Public Relations. Each has their own unique take on the topic, and it’s from these sessions that we were able to create our definition.

Our definition.

“Native Advertising is sponsored content, which is relevant to the user experience, not interruptive, and which looks and feels similar to its editorial environment”.

It’s worth breaking this down into its constituent parts, for absolute clarity:

• Sponsored content: content that is paid for by an advertiser. The publisher would not have created this editorial without advertiser investment.

• Relevant to the user experience: content that is about a consumer interest, rather than a brand or product (as with traditional advertising).

• Not interruptive: it cannot take users ‘out of the moment’ and interrupt their experience in any way.

• Looks and feels similar to its editorial environment: it must behave like any other piece of editorial content, in how it looks and how it interacts with the consumer.

What this definition brings to the fore is that native advertising relies hugely on the quality of the content. The consumer must choose to read it, not have it forced on them. It must behave like any other piece of content – so if your site thrives on user comments, do not close them off just because this article is sponsored.

Please look out elsewhere on the Huff Post Native site for some great case studies and examples of well-executed native campaigns.

A final word on transparency.

The findings of our research showed that transparency was vital when executing native advertising. As the definition above highlights, native is about becoming part of the surrounding environment, but consumers don’t like to feel mislead. If the quality and relevance of the content are high, users will not turn away from a piece of content just because it’s presented by a brand. Recent stories, such as The Atlantic Magazine’s Scientology advertisement (and the subsequent apology) show, transparency is non-negotiable. As the lines between content and advertising blur, publishers and brands both have to take responsibility for this