The more brands express an interest in native advertising, the more publishers’ ears perk up.
But as a native advertising platform provider, we shudder at some of the haphazard ways publishers are choosing to integrate their native ad units. From burying them in a list of links to cordoning them off like banner ads, there are plenty of ways a publisher can render its advertisers’ investments worthless, simply with bad design choices.
The truth is that, while native advertising can be extremely effective, it’s not powerful enough to defy the laws of good web design. There are a couple things every publisher needs to understand before launching a native ad unit.
- Native advertising’s success depends largely on its context and placement.
Obviously, a native ad’s content plays a major role in whether it sparks reader engagement, but that’s assuming readers see it to begin with. If you want native ads to succeed on your site, you have to give them a fighting chance to be viewed.
That means instead of simply replacing your banner ads with native ads, you need to place your native unit in a high-traffic area of the page.
We’re glad the New York Times is getting into the native ad game, but they can do better than this glorified banner ad for Dell.
- Following design best practices will improve click-through rates (CTR) for all of your content, including your native ads.
With all the research that’s available on how users read online media, it’s surprising how many sites—especially news sites—still cover every inch of real estate in links and banners.
ESPN.com is a good example of the chaotic design that’s typical of news sites.
In most cases, native advertising works better within a simple site design that adheres to a few basic standards:
- Content is laid out in an F-shaped orZ-shaped pattern, since this is how users read web pages. Like editorial content, if you place your native ads along these axes, there’s a much better chance readers will notice them and click through.
- Content is limited to 1-3 columns—any more than that and the content starts to compete with itself, lowering engagement.
- The site design is responsive. This is non-negotiable at this point, with mobile Internet usage predicted to surpass desktop this year.
- The font is easy to read. While serif fonts are more readable for print, low-res digital screens can make them look muddy, so sans serif is actually better for web content.
- The clickable regions are large. The area in the top, left corner of a site will always get the most clicks, often with an average CTR of around 10%. But sites with multiple large, clickable regions are often able to drive CTRs of about 5-6% for each piece.
Quartz and imgur both follow web design best practices, while the Star-Telegram is cluttered and chaotic.
While you could place a native ad in almost any of the boxes on the imgur homepage, it’s doubtful you’d even notice a native ad in the Star-Telegram. If the Star-Telegram wanted to launch a successful native ad unit, its publisher might first need to create more premium editorial real estate throughout the page and redesign the layout to be simpler.
The bottom line is that native advertising can be successful for many types of publishers, but implementing it takes a strategic application of design principles. The good news is that the same best practices that improve CTR for your advertisers will also boost your editorial views. And with mobile content influencing user expectations more and more, your design refresh might not come a moment too soon.