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Perhaps someday native advertising will mature into a viable alternative to traditional web advertising but today it creates more problems than answers.
What is native advertising?
In simplest terms, native advertising refers to a type of advertisement that is mimics the form and function of a user's experience on a site. It is best thought of as a catch-all phrase for content-based marketing that is malleable to the platform to which it is applied.
The most common form of native advertising on the web at the moment is the placement of an advertiser's message within the content stream of a publication in such a way that the paid placement is virtually indistinguishable from other publisher-produced content.
In the case of social media platforms, this includes a promoted tweet on Twitter, a sponsored story on Facebook, interstitial advertisements on Flipboard, and promoted pins on Pinterest.
The advertiser works with the content producer (for example, the publisher) to create a message that mimics the content of the publication in the look, feel, and delivery mechanism so that the advertisement doesn't distract the user from the content or otherwise disrupt the user experience.
This leads to higher user engagement rates compared to traditional ads which demand attention by distracting from the user experience. At it's core, the problem native advertising is trying to solve is one of banner blindness.
A plethora of studies have shown that users are increasingly able to consciously or subconsciously tune out banner advertisements displayed on websites while focusing strictly on the content stream.
Over time this has led to plummeting click-through rates on advertisements, which in turn has led to lower costs per impression, and no one has felt the effects more than online publishers who rely on ad revenue to subsist.
Does native advertising work?
A study conducted by IPG Media Lab showed that individuals visiting pages with branded content were 41% more likely to express an intent to buy, and 28% more likely to have a favorable view of the brand.
Furthermore, Sharethrough points out:
- Consumers looked at native ads 52% more frequently than display ads.
- 25% more consumers looked at in-feed ads than display ads.
- Native ads resulted in 18% higher lift in purchase intent and 9% higher lift for brand affinity.
- 32% of respondents said the native ad “is an ad I would share with a friend of family member” versus 19% for display ads.
- 71% of preexisting consumers identified with the brand after viewing a native ad versus 50% for display ads.
The study showed native advertisements are consumed the same way as editorial content and readers were 41% more likely to share branded content when they read it on the publisher's site (in this case Forbes.com) versus on the brand's own site.
This conclusion is colored, however, by the fact that those sharing branded content from Forbes.com in the study were not explicitly told that the content came from an advertiser.
Does native advertising rely on deception?
In the case of online publishers, native advertisements as they have been implemented so far are no different from traditional print advertorials, other than being less regulated and significantly harder to distinguish from unpaid/unbiased content.
What is the most essential component contributing to the success of a native advertisement? Is it their relevancy to the user, or how they slip into the content stream unnoticed?
While it is important to communicate with an audience on a platform where it converges and present content it would like to consume, will native ads have the same impact if they are clearly labeled as advertisements and highlight that they are paid content with marketing intent?
When does imitating form and function of a platform go from integrative marketing to an intentional attempt at influencing user behavior through deception.
These are only some of the questions the FTC is trying to answer.
The delivery of relevant messages and cultivating user engagement are important goals, of course... but it’s equally important that advertising not mislead consumers."
By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a nonbiased source,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
What matters here is not just the distinction between marketing material or informational content (and the bias the former brings with it), but also how the intent behind the content is communicated to the reader.
As it turns out, publishers offering native advertising go to great lengths to coach these advertisements in phrases that mask their real purpose.
Vague phrases such as 'sponsored by', 'brought to you by', 'presented by', or 'featured partner' are used in place of clearly labeling content as advertisements to create uncertainty or confusion in the mind of the reader with respect to the relationship between the publisher, the advertiser, and the content.
Facebook and Twitter similarly use phrases such as 'suggested', 'recommended', and 'promoted', in lieu of 'advertised'.
Take this definition from Ryan Skinner, Forrester's senior analyst for content marketing, for example.
Any form of paid or sponsored content that directly and transparently contributes to the experience of the site or platform where it appears, by aligning with the format, context or purpose of that site or platform’s editorial content.
First we need to provide more clarity on the distinction between paid content and sponsored content. Second, the importance of transparency cannot be understated. When implementing native advertising, ask yourself this - would this advertisement be successful if it abided by the following disclosure guidelines from IAB?
The disclosure must:
1. Use language that conveys that the advertising has been paid for, thus making it an advertising unit, even if that unit does not contain traditional promotional advertising messages.
2. Be large and visible enough for a consumer to notice it in the context of a given page and/or relative to the device that the ad is being viewed on.
Simply put: Regardless of context, a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising vs. what is publisher editorial content.
Good native advertising succeeds in spite of the disclosures listed above while bad native advertising tries to skirt those same disclosures.
Native advertisements and user trust
Google has a zero-tolerance stance against advertorials and commerce journalism, and with good reason.
The relationship between a publisher and his audience is fundamentally rooted in trust. Intent and perception both matter and have have a substantial impact on how your audience engages with you. Promoting something with the sole intention of achieving a branding or marketing end while fostering the perception of entertainment or utility takes advantage of user trust through deception.
As Google puts it:
It’s difficult to be trusted when one is being paid by the subject of an article, or selling or monetizing links within an article.
It is even worse if you do the preceding but obfuscate the relationship by obscure disclosures and opaque language. If that is your definition of native advertising, then you are in the business of amortizing your readers' trust.
Is native advertising doomed?
I'm a firm believer in marketers being their own worst enemies. Deceptive or otherwise poorly executed strategies make cynics out of all of us and that harms the entire industry.
Looking at some of the most successful examples of native advertising, I can't help but think - not only do advertisers not understand native advertising, but they also don't know the metrics with which to measure its success.
I don't think native advertising is doomed, simply because we have yet to see advertising that is truly native.