Project GutenbergAlthough native ads are indisputably one of the hottest trends in digital advertising, the concept is new enough that an agreed-upon definition has not been settled on yet. And some elements of the approach, specifically its focus on content and the way it is embedded in site content, has led some to confuse them with the much-maligned advertorial. Ambiguity around the term has led at least one prominent blogger to decry the approach, and even at the IAB Annual Leadership Summit, advertising execs, for the most part, claimed it represented nothing new.

But what really is the difference? There are some similarities, and also some clear points of difference.

Similarities

Both native advertising and advertorials are placed within the context of where site content is consumed. Instead of being relegated to the periphery of a Web page, such as within the navigation sidebars or above content, both native ads and advertorials appear within the natural flow of content consumption on the site.

Both native ads and advertorials also both at least give the appearance of providing the kinds of content that users want to see. This similarity is actually skin deep, but we'll get to that later.

Finally, both (again, at least superficially) provide content that adopts the tone of its editorial context. Native ads and advertorials can use humor on satirical sites, they can strike a more sober tone on drier news sites, etc.

These similarities give rise to confusion among those who have not yet seen both native advertising and advertorials in practice. But critics would be remiss if they didn't acknowledge some crucial differences between the two.

Differences

First, unlike advertorials, which misrepresent the authenticity of the voice used in developing copy, native ads make the sponsoring brand clear. This is for an understandable reason: brands want users to associate them with the content they're providing. The content in an advertorial can exploit the trust users associate with a site's editorial content, and mislead users into thinking the site is endorsing the advertiser. In contrast, native advertising presents content in the format and tone that users are receptive to, but makes clear that the sponsor is the brand, not the hosting site.

Second, while advertorials try to influence decision-making through subterfuge, native ads provide genuine utility or entertainment value to users. Instead of leveraging a site's authority to cloak the nature and source of a commercial message, native advertising's goal is to have the user appreciate the value the content delivered via the ad provides, and then see the brand in a more favorable light. 

Using fabular metaphors, advertorials are wolves in sheep's clothing, while native ads are mice who free trapped lions.

Finally, native ads require brands to engage with the desires of their target audience. Posting an article on the benefits of professional teeth whitening on a political site constitutes an advertorial. In contrast, providing baking tips and seasonal recipes on a cooking site is native advertising. If a user could walk away from an ad feeling duped, that's an advertorial; if they feel gratitude, that's an effective native ad.

Of course, taking advantage of a lack of an understanding of what native advertising is can turn a concept's white hat black. But for a brand who has a vested interest in building up its awareness and perception among existing and potential customers, proper native advertising can reframe how it's viewed.