With so many publishing platforms hungry for content and even hungrier for advertising revenues, it should come as no surprise that native advertising is catching on like wildfire.

According to recent research from Business Insider, spending on native ads, which was just $4.7 billion in 2013, will reach $7.9 billion in 2014 and grow to $21 billion in 2018.

If you are not already familiar with the term, native advertising is a form of online advertising that blends in almost seamlessly with the platform on which it appears.

Native advertising has become ubiquitous. On Facebook, it takes the form of News Feed ads. On Twitter, it's promoted Tweets. Buzzfeed enables advertisers to create sponsored posts.

In newspapers and magazines, native advertising can appear as an article written at the same level of quality as the publications purely journalistic content. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Time Inc, have all created or expanded existing departments to create content for advertisers.

While native advertising has a long history, including brands sponsoring television programs and advertorials, it has expanded exponentially in the digital age. It is the latest trend in content marketing, where businesses create quality content designed to build trust and engagement with would-be clients and customers.

The reason for the phenomenal growth in native advertising is quite simple: it is remarkably effective. A Sharethrough/IPG Media Lab study found:

  • Consumers looked at native ads 53% more frequently than display ads.
    25% more consumers were measured to look at in-feed native ad placements (the most common editorial native ad format) than display ad units.
  • Native ads registered 18% higher lift in purchase intent and 9% lift for brand affinity responses than banner ads
  • 32% of respondents said the native ad "is an ad I would share with a friend of family member" versus just 19% for display ads.
  • Viewers spend nearly the same amount of time reading editorial content and native ads--1.2 seconds and 1 second, respectively.
  • Purchase intent is 53% higher for native ads.

According to a recent Online Publishers Association study, fully 73% of publishers now support native advertising, with another 17% poised to pull the trigger. Pair this with the fact that 70% of consumers look to content before making buying decisions and you have a nearly perfect storm.

Though there are guidelines out there for making it clear that the reader is reading content that was written by or for a sponsor, it is not always easy for the reader to distinguish between the two. This has clearly gotten the attention of both the Federal Trade Commission and Google, with both requiring brands and publishers to make the distinction between paid and organic absolutely clear to the reader. Google has even threatened to remove domains from search engine results if they fail to comply with their transparency guidelines.

According to guidelines from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising versus what is publisher editorial content.

Big businesses have made native advertising a huge portion of their advertising buys and there's absolutely no reason why smaller, entrepreneurial businesses shouldn't be jumping on the bandwagon.

Before making that leap, though, here are a few things to keep in mind, native advertising is still content marketing and all the same rules apply:

  • Make sure you identify your target audiences, understand the kinds of content that interests them and which digital outlets they follow.
  • Whatever content you create, make sure it is of the highest quality. If you don't have the internal wherewithal to create that level of content, then make sure you find someone externally- either with the advertising platform itself or in an agency.
  • Experiment. Native advertising is not etched in stone. It allows you to be flexible and creative. Multiple campaigns create valuable data, which brings me to...
  • Measure every campaign. Track your results, conversions and trends. The data you collect from these campaigns allows you to understand what's working, what isn't and what do next.
  • Be transparent. You are not looking to confuse your target audiences; you are looking to serve them. The slightest hint that they are being gamed in any way will turn them off. Forever.