5 Top Secrets to Succeeding in Native Advertising

Erin Greenawald


damien weighill


Native advertising expert and consultant Melanie Deziel shares how publishers and brands can succeed in this new industry

As one of the people on the forefront of the native advertising industry, Melanie Deziel is a true expert in the field. She was one of the first three hires on The New York Times’ thriving branded content team, and then spent time strategizing for Time Inc.’s 25+ print and digital brands before branching off on her own as a brand strategy consultant and speaker. She runs The Overlap League, a newsletter that helps people in the sponsored content space stay up to date with industry news, jobs and events, examples of great campaigns, and advice.

We chatted with Melanie to learn some of the basic best practices for creating successful native advertising campaigns. If you’re newer to the industry, her advice is the place to start.


The increase of the native advertising spend year-over-year in Q1 2017. It’s the largest increase of any ad format measured.

Find a Partnership With a Lot of Overlap

There has to be a really good match between the publisher and the sponsoring advertiser, a natural overlap in the messages they’re trying to put forward and in the audience that they want to reach. The marriage those two things is incredibly important.

I think one of the things that happens quite often is that you have a brand or a publisher who is paired up with someone who—while it might be a really cool brand or a nice legacy publisher that you want to have your name on—is not necessarily great from a topic or audience perspective. No matter how much you want to work together and how good the content is, if you have a situation where there’s not as much overlap in what those two want to create, the content likely won’t perform as well.

There also needs to be an understanding that this is a collaborative process. Even if you have a good match between an advertiser and a publisher, if they’re not working together or if any one party is too much in control, you end up with a situation where the content isn’t as good as it could be.

Create an Idea That Only You Can Do

A lot of times you’ll only have general guidance around what the brand wants. They’ll come to you and say, “we want to talk striving millennials,” or, “we want to talk about mom challenges.” Then you have to take a step back and ask yourself: What subset of our audience hits the target audience? What does that audience typically engage with on our site editorially? What kind of content are they used to seeing, sharing, and liking? How can we create something that fits in the middle ground?

When I’m brainstorming a piece, I often remind my team that we’re not the only ones who got this RFP. It went to 10, 20, 40 publishers. So we need to be so uniquely us that they can’t do it with someone else. If we come back to them with a vanilla roadtrip idea or a profile of a small business owner, there are 50 other publications that can do either of those. We need to tap into what’s unique about our audience, about the format that we use on our site, about the way that we tell stories, about our perspective, and we need to come back with something that they really can’t do without us.

Obviously you want to have a very strategic distribution plan, too. If you’re going to do all this work creating a mansion, you want to make sure that there are doors and windows for people to get in. So, have a plan that leverages the publisher’s owned and operated channels—the website, social media, paid social if that’s appropriate—and leverages the properties of the sponsoring brand.


The size of the branded content market, according to Polar’s Branded Content 100.

Avoid Heavy Branding (Unless It Makes Sense)

Something that happens a lot is that brands aren’t willing to step away from the hard sell or conversion-based content, and you end up with something that is unnatural for the publishing environment. So, it may be a good match and it’s the perfect audience and you’ve written something great, but if it ends with a really hard right hook that is not natural for that publisher, then it kind of turns people off and it’s not going to perform the way you want it to.

That said, if the environment of your publication allows for you to be a little more heavy handed with the branding because it fits the context, feel free to explore those opportunities. For example, there was a piece a while ago where Apartment Therapy partnered with Hulu and they did a piece about Mindy Kaling’s apartment in The Mindy Project. It was literally photos from the set of the apartment where the character lives, and it was showing you how to shop those looks, how you find this chair or recreate these curtains. That is so heavily branded, but it works perfectly because that’s what the audience of Apartment Therapy wants. It wouldn’t work at somewhere like The Times, but for them it worked so well.

I’ve always found it really helpful to just be very, very honest with sponsors when they’re asking you to do something that you think is going to negatively impact the content. So, I’ve never been afraid to say, “Yes, we can make your logo bigger. But I do want to warn you that it’s probably going to negatively impact how many people continue to scroll because it’s kind of a turn off.” Or “We’re happy to put in that giant quote from your lawyer, but you know it’s probably going to stop people from reading because it doesn’t fit the cadence of the rest of the content.”

Just be honest that, when they’re making choices that are brand first and not reader first, then it’s going to have a negative impact on the content’s performance.

Know What Success Means to You

I wish there was one single answer to how to measure the success of native advertising but I think it really depends on the individual campaign and on what that sponsor wants to accomplish.

In so many cases the instinct is to go for the more conversion-based metrics and KPIs where you’re looking at things like sales, traffic, sign-ups, or downloads, but that is generally harder to accomplish without being really heavy with the branding.

So I try to steer brands towards a something a little more top of funnel: give someone the why, talk about why something is important or teach them something or give a personal story. It’s a little more awareness- and engagement-focused, and you’ll be measuring things like scroll depth, time on site, comments, hover states or eye tracking if possible. A lot of brands also like to work with a third party to conduct some kind of market research study so they can see things like brand lift, favorability, and purchase intent. Even that generally leads to some conversion as well, so you can still accomplish that without having to hit someone over the head with your brand and your logo.

The other challenge is that there’s still no unified benchmark, and I think we’ll be hard pressed to find one at an industry-wide level. The reason for that is: What does the average editorial article get in pageviews? There is no benchmark. We’re looking for ad-level metrics on an editorial structured product, but every publisher gets a different number of pageviews on regular articles or interactions on an infographics or views on an video. One single benchmark that somehow encapsulates a multimedia piece by Netflix and a checklist on estate planning by a finance brand, is always going to be lacking. So I think what works much better is publisher-level benchmarks where you can say, “On our property this is how a video or an article usually performs.” It’s much more apples to apples when you’re buying the program.

Think Strategically About New Formats

When I’m working with publisher or brands, I’m always reminding them that native is an adjective. It means that it’s organic, that it belongs, that it fits in the space. We can apply that mindset to way more than just a publisher’s website. We can apply that to VR, to events, to mobile app experiences, and so much more.

But what works is so context dependent. If you’re working with a local publisher—which is happening at increasing volumes now—then you don’t need a $600,000 three-part mini doc with investigative reporting and all that, because that’s not what the audience usually finds there. If you’re going to BuzzFeed then you want either a funny video or you want a GIF list and anything beyond that is just excessive. There’s no reason a plain GIF listicle BuzzFeed couldn’t perform better for your campaign objectives than some multimedia reported piece by one of the legacy publishers. It really just depends on the context and what you’re trying to accomplish.