The banter around native advertising - and more specifically native content publishing - reached fever pitch this year. Every man and his dog had a view on how it should be defined, measured, labeled, scaled and priced. And while the the jury may still be out on a number of these issues, one thing we do know here at HuffPost Partner Studio is bloody good native content when we see it.
It is with that in mind that we compiled our list of the top native content campaigns for 2013 (ourselves excluded, naturally). Our selection criteria ties closely to our definition of native advertising; that is, advertiser-sponsored content that is transparent (i.e. clearly-labeled as such) and authentic to the platform, its readers, and the sponsor.
#1 Barbie's Dreamhouse
Integration: Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse Listing on Trulia.com
It really doesn't get more native than this. For those of you that don't know Barbie so well, she has lived in the Malibu Dreamhouse since like forever! Mattel finally decided earlier this year that it was time for Barbie to move out of the "ultimate bachelorette compound", and ahead of the "big move" (read: NEW product launch and the start of the "Barbie Is Moving Tour") hired Josh Altman, one of the agents from Million Dollar Listing: Los Angeles, to get her current Malibu McMansion listed for a cool $25M on the reputable Real-Estate site Trulia.com.
The creative genius that came up with this integration and the whole "Barbie is Moving" campaign, which sent Barbie on a road trip to 13 cities across North America in search of a new crib, deserves a high five and a promotion.
For those not familiar with the campaign, after a 6 month search Barbie ultimately ended up deciding to return to Malibu and renovate her existing "bachelorette compound;" adding an additional elevator, walk-in-wardrobe, and state of the art stainless steel appliances. The Trulia listing has since been unlisted and is now marked "Off Market".
#2 Developing: Residents Embrace Bizarre New Bird Species
Brand: White Wing
Integration: A fictional special news report on the White Wing, "an odd never before seen bird" spotted in Shiner, TX
This is a great example of native content that is organic to the publisher's platform -- it truly shares the same sensibility as other Onion content. Although The Onion, as a satirical news site doesn't have to play by the same rules as traditional publishers, a sense of humor goes a long way toward making a piece of content memorable. The piece offers a winking, knowing tone that goes over-the-top in product placement, but somehow still works.
#3 Green Label
Brand: Mountain Dew
Integration: Green Label is a content hub that describes itself as "the intersection of skateboarding, music, and art."
This sponsored campaign is chock-full of content that targets Complex's fashion-forward, culture-obsessed millennial audience (see: "A Brief History of Skateboarding," "50 States of Lego," and "10 Rumored Albums We Want To Hear Already.")
In short, Complex has created a platform full of timely pieces that represent Mountain Dew's already existing ties to youth culture. (The Green Label Sound music label, Green Label Experience action-sports sponsorships, and Green Label Art initiatives have been running for years, but Dew lacked a consolidated online destination for its sponsored content.) It's a great example of a brand leaning on a publisher for editorial expertise and strategy.
#4 The Power of Reinventing Work
Publisher: The Atlantic
Integration: An interactive infographic on best business practices from IBM's "Power In Data: Turning Facts Into Discoveries" campaign.
This B2B execution is great example of how native advertising can help brands establish thought leadership in a fresh and innovative way. The infographic features statistics from IBM case studies and applies them to a larger message of how a business can "reinvent" its workplace and ultimately drive value to the organization. In alignment with the IBM's "Power In Data" messaging, this execution turns facts into powerful discoveries via a creative design that engages readers and stimulates conversation.
#5 Icons: History Told Through Human Achievement
Publisher: The Atlantic
Integration : A list of photos with quotes from icons throughout history, sponsored by Rolex. The quotes were pulled from Atlantic profiles of Martin Luther King, Jr., Marlon Brando, and Picasso, among others.
This integration was anchored by beautiful, high-quality photographs and compelling quotes. The fact that the quotes are pulled from articles in the Atlantic's archives makes it truly native to the platform. Overall, it's a great fit featuring the marriage of an iconic, upscale publication with an iconic, upscale brand. It's simple content, beautifully executed.
#6 17 Problems Only Book Lovers Understand
Integration: A fun piece from the folks at HarperCollins in the form of a classic BuzzFeed listicle, comprised of the internet's greatest gift to the world: animated GIFs.
A native content purist might argue that this post isn't technically a native ad, in that it's not a traditional Buzzfeed-produced sponsored listicle, but rather an unpaid community post by HarperCollins themselves. That said, huge kudos to the publishing powerhouse for really nailing it. Not only is their list a book-lover's delight, it expertly matches BuzzFeed's editorial voice and format. This is also an excellent example of a brand focusing on the kind of high-level messaging that does so well in native: not too "salesy", not tied to a campaign, but part of a broader brand storytelling effort.
#7 Panhandler Pranks Entire Subway Car
Brand: Vitamin Water
Publisher: College Humor
Integration: Vitamin Water's "#makeboringbrilliant" campaign applied in subway panhandler prank video.
New York straphangers are all too familiar with panhandlers. At pretty much any time during the day, needy New Yorkers can be found in subway stations and cars soliciting cash from train riders in exchange for candy, a song and dance, or a tear-jerking sob story. Inspired by Vitamin Water's #makeboringbrilliant campaign, this sponsored video turns a subway begger into a subway bragger. A great example of clever, "viral-style" content that aligns perfectly with the brand identity without force-fitting direct product integration.
...AND AN HONORABLE MENTION FROM 2012
The New Suit: Meet The 10 Most Creative, Innovative Entrepreneurs Redefining Office Style
Integration: Levi's apparel featured in profiles of 10 modern professionals who are re-imagining business fashion in a sponsored slideshow.
Last, but certainly not least, is a piece that just missed the mark (date-wise). Although published in 2012, this beautifully executed collaboration certainly deserves honorable mention. It's completely native to Refinery29's fashion-forward platform and the concept of the "New Suit" is relevant to both the publisher's audience as well as Levi's consumers. Such overlap allowed for a tasteful integration of Levi's products into the piece. A great slideshow with thoughtful interviews, quality photography, and awesome style to boot.