With ad blocking being such a talking point in the digital marketing world at the moment, there has been much debate around what advertisers and publishers could do to help tackle the problem.
One thing that has almost certainly contributed to the rising popularity of ad blocking software is the fact that many publishers insist on using hideous or intrusive ads in the form of giant flashing banners or autoplay videos.
I covered some examples of this in my post about ad blockers a couple of months ago, but here’s a quick reminder of the type of nightmare I’m referring to.
This example from the Independent website has it all: sidescrolling banner ads, autoplay videos in the middle of articles, completely irrelevent promoted content and nightmare-inducing colour schemes.
Yes, publishers need advertising revenue, and I am fully behind the notion that if people want free content they should accept there are going to be ads included.
But surely there has to be a better way than the above monstrosity?
There is, in fact, and it’s called native advertising. Granted it’s nothing particularly new, but given the tidal wave of ad blocking that doesn’t seem to be slowing down I’d say native advertising is now more relevant and important than ever.
What is native advertising?
If, like me, you’re a fan of both sci-fi and puerile humour, you might have seen the episode of Red Dwarf in which a weird little shapeshifting alien thing called a polymorph transforms to blend in with its surroundings and make itself undetectable.
Well that’s the idea behind native advertising. Native ads blend in with the content of the host site by mimicking it, and therefore become less jarring and more appealing to the reader as a result.
But if my lacklustre explanation and polymorph simile weren’t enough for you, let’s look at a few examples instead.
Buzzfeed: branded posts
Buzzfeed is, in my opinion, the leader in the field when it comes to native advertising. There is not a single banner ad in sight: all advertising comes in the form of branded posts that almost seamlessly blend in with the rest of its content.
Here is a screenshot of the homepage. As you can see the branded articles (circled) sit within the rest of the site’s content. The only difference is the presence of the logo and ‘promoted by’ label.
When you go into the posts you can see that again they have the same look and feel as non-branded Buzzfeed content.
This one with British Airways is particularly effective, using shareable imagery to get people excited about travelling.
The idea behind these branded posts is that, while relevant to the objectives of the sponsor, they also have the same sharing value as the other Buzzfeed posts.
Simply put: both the brand and the consumer come away happy.
Wired and Netflix: interactive content
This example takes native advertising to art form level. Wired published a ridiculously eye-catching post about the way in which technology is changing advertising.
The post contained everything from video content and audio commentary to in-depth editorial and interactive surveys.
While sponsored by Netflix, the post is completely free from unsightly banner ads and provides genuine value to Wired’s readers.
GoPro: Facebook native video
Social media is the natural home for native advertising, because people are generally not in the mood to be sold to and so a slightly more creative approach is required.
In this example, GoPro posted a video of a dog speed flying in Hawaii.
What separates this from a normal video advert is the fact that this is the type of content people would readily share on Facebook, regardless of who posted it.
Does native advertising actually work?
A fine question. There is no definitive answer, because there never is in this industry, but in the context of this article we’re talking about whether native ads improve engagement and there has been some research that suggests they do.
A survey of 509 consumers by Contently found that most people struggle to differentiate between what is and isn’t branded content.
On nearly every publication we tested, consumers tend to identify native advertising as an article, not an advertisement.
In theory this means they are much less likely to ignore native ads vs. traditional banner ads because they feel like they’re seeing the content they came there to see.
The survey also found that those who read native ads that they identified as high quality reported a significantly higher level of trust for the sponsoring brand.
The bad news? 62% of respondents think a site loses credibility when it publishes native ads, which means publishers need to work hard to make sure branded content provides the same value as non-branded content or risk alienating their audience.
Publishers also need to be careful not to make consumers feel duped into reading adverts. 48% have felt deceived upon realising a piece of content was sponsored by a brand.
Conclusion: native ads benefit all parties
So going back to the title question: do I think native advertising is the answer to ad blocking?
Not definitively, no. But if publishers use it in the right way then I genuinely believe it could encourage fewer people to use ad blocking software in future.
But it should never be about tricking people into viewing ad content. It’s about providing an option that benefits everyone.
The feedback from consumers, spoken in the language of ad blocker download numbers, is loud and clear: ‘We hate current advertising formats and we’ll go out of our way not to see them.’
Based on the example I included at the start of this article, can you blame them?
By responding with native advertising, publishers are saying, ‘Fine, we’ll give you ads you’ll actually enjoy, and they’ll fit in with the content you came here to see so they won’t feel jarring or intrusive.’
Ultimately everyone comes out better off.
For more on adblocking, read: