Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.
Native ads are pieces of paid content ranging across articles, videos, infographics or images delivered in the flow of editorial content and consistent with the editorial style and tone of the publication. Typically, they have a teeny, tiny stamp that marks them as advertising or sponsored content — if you know what to look for. However, not everyone does know what to look for and research suggests that most users don’t recognize it as advertising.
The implicit agreement of the Web is that content is largely free and that ad exposures pay for the significant costs to create and deliver all that content to users. This keeps it simple — church and state, advertising and editorial — and maintains a mutually beneficial balance. Native advertising subverts that trade-off for the benefit of publishers/advertisers in much the same way that ad blockers tip the scales for consumers.
In fact, many assert that native advertising arose as a publisher solution to outsmart ad blocker software allowing growing numbers of consumers to remove ads from their online experience.
The rise of native advertising under its multitude of names has been impressive. Higher click and engagement rates compared to other forms of online advertising have driven brands on board with flexible formats across social and mobile platforms, in particular. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on native ads will rise to $21 billion in 2018 from just $4.7 billion in 2013. Almost half of online advertisers have adopted native ads into their plans as of 2016, according to a recent survey.
But the widespread usage of this format is not without its costs. A recent Penn State study found there may be negative perceptions attached to publishers who blur the lines of advertising and editorial. Brands using the tactic apparently get more leeway since they are expected to promote themselves.
Still, publishers chasing much needed revenue have almost universally adopted this highly effective approach, including expected sources like Buzzfeed, Outbrain and Facebook plus other, more traditional and mainstream, publishers like USA Today, The New York Times, Conde Nast, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal.Forbes actually devoted part of its cover to a native ad for Fidelity in its latest issue, prompting AdAge to proclaim “Another Taboo Broken.”
Smart algorithms drive the money machine that is native advertising even as popular criticisms emerge in voices as unexpected as John Oliver and South Park:
The reproaches vary but tend to reflect the core concern that users may mistake paid content for unpaid content.
Well, yeah. Native advertising done well will blur the line between content and ads. That is the goal of the format — to keep readers in the stream of their content experience and not disrupt them with a blatant ad. But, if we don’t disclose the commercial intent in a visible and noticeable way, we are using trickery that runs counter to the transparency that users demand in their Web experience today.
How do advertisers capitalize on the opportunities presented by these new innovative ad vehicles without stepping over that thin line? The Federal Trade Commission published specific guidelines late in 2015 to help brands avoid deceptive practices, and the IAB has weighed in as well (opens as a PDF). Guidelines reduce to simply how visible and clear the disclosure needs to be.
Web users demand transparency and punish brands that aren’t truthful at the same time they reward brands that succeed in delivering honest ideas and communications. #Fails abound for hapless brand campaigns that ring false with their audiences.
But, marketers lured by the promise of improved results may minimize or rationalize their deception and probably don’t even consider the broader possible impact on the industry. Like most things, the danger is in the aggregate.
There may be increased backlash coming as more and more consumers come to recognize and resent the frequent sleight of hand integral to many native ad executions. And it won’t just damage the already challenged reputation of the advertising industry, but will also tarnish publishers and brands making it harder for even forthright ad executions to gain acceptance.
For the industry to continue innovating successfully, the public trust must be prioritized with both publishers and advertisers acting responsibly. For native ads, that means a minimum of clear naming and prominent labeling. It’s the law, it’s the right thing to do and it’s smart business.