Native ads are ubiquitous, but most don’t adequately show that they are native ads — leading to confused, frustrated consumers.

A new study released by the Online Trust Alliance examining the top 100 news publishers (including PBS, The New York Times and more) found that 71 percent received failing grades and did not live up to industry standards.

So, why the underperformance?

Native ads may be blending in too much with the content surrounding them, causing confusion, annoyance and misinterpretation amongst consumers. Consumers don’t know if they’re viewing an article or an ad sending them into the dark abyss. The sociologists at South Park outlined it perfectly:

But Craig Speizle, the Online Trust Alliance’s executive director, believes the findings reveal a much bigger picture — not adhering to industry guidelines “risk marginalizing the long-term value of advertising and the reputation of sites where they are served,” said Speizle in a press release.

Both publishers and advertisers have their work cut out for them, which means we need to understand why native ads fail, how to avoid wrongdoings, and what the future of native ads looks like. The three standards below strive to reinforce the need for both brands and publishers to create trustworthy reputations.

Disclosure, Discoverability and Delineation

The Online Trust Alliance, whose mission is to promote business practices that enhance online trust, recommends proper ad disclosure.

While native ads should appear less like traditional ads, clearly distinguishing sponsored content is required. Without proper disclosure, advertisers risk deception—nearly two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand.

Perhaps that’s why only 9% of the sites examined in the study received top trust scores for being clearly labeled as ads. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t felt fooled by a brand’s sly advertising techniques?

Tip: Avoid duping your consumers. Be as clear as possible, and include terminology such as “Sponsored By,” “Paid for By”, or even simply calling it an “Ad”. This provides invaluable transparency that consumers deserve, and they’re more likely to interact with your content because of it.


The OTA deemed 20 percent of the ads from the study as “in need of improvement,” and in the CNN screenshot above (not taken from the OTA study), it’s easy to understand why. There are two factors to point out.

1. The title, “Paid Partner Content” is helpful but does not provide proper disclosure.
2. The sponsors, Lending Tree, Healthgrades, and GOBankingRates are identified, but the text is difficult to read.

Color, font type and contrast should all be taken into consideration when publishing native ads. Focus on discoverability. The light grey-italicized font from the CNN ad lacks visibility, and there is little differentiation between the editorial content and the ads itself.

Tip: Go beyond the point of discoverability. Be impressionable, and make an impact with your ad by adding visual communication. They’ll catch eyeballs, and consumers will enjoy reading what you have to say.


‘Orange is the New Black’, Netflix native ad taken from The New York Times.

In a mere 1.3 milliseconds, images fill humans with context and emotion. Use images that mirror headlines to help make more visible associations between context. Native ads present the perfect opportunity to paint a picture of your content through images, and please stop using bad stock photos.

Digital ads that are successful at communicating brands include some form of recognizable brand assets. Especially for consumer-facing brands. Having a brand logo or another familiar asset has the potential to strengthen brand affiliation. In the above ad, Netflix includes their logo and Orange is the New Black.

Native advertising itself is a bit of a paradox. Francois-Xavier Preaut, regional director for Outbrain, describes native advertising as “a format that is well-integrated and very personalized—a unique format that is suited to the website on which I find myself.” However, advertisers have a difficult time distinguishing ads from editorial content, known as delineation.

Tip: Follow format. The value of native advertising is that it’s in the feeds. Today’s consumers take in information in highly attentive modes of discovery while sifting through feeds. Advertisers can play close attention to the format, placement and targeting of their native ads by adding shading or bordering around the native ad. This will help to foster a distinction between editorial content and native ads, without interrupting the user experience.

Want to learn more about ads? Check out our guide Winning Strategies for Facebook and Instagram Ads.