Native advertising: A fine line between 'innovative' and 'insidious'

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Two camps are forming around native advertising. One believes the practice is evil, or, in the words of Mediassociates VP Ben Kunz, “insidious.”  The other camp believes native advertising is an innovative way to “add value” to the advertiser-audience relationship.  There’s actually a fine line between the two.

Writing for Digiday, Kunz called native advertising “a more insidious encroachment into consumer media content than any prior form of advertising.” He adds that native advertising programs could “poison the well of digital ad communications by breaking consumer trust.”

Trust is a key issue; I wrote last week about how native advertising can dilute trust if publishers allow edit and advertising to commingle too closely.  As more publishers embrace native advertising to grow digital revenues, trust will be a recurring theme.

The biggest problem with native advertising, Kunz argues, is that it “confuses the source of the message, despite disclosure, and in human communications, understanding the source of anything is critically important for us to judge value.”

Not everyone agrees that native advertising lacks value or, worse, is unethical. Some readers took exception to Kunz’s point that native advertising is, at best, confusing.  Andy Wiedlin, chief revenue officer at BuzzFeed – one of the strongest proponents of native ads – said that calling native advertising insidious “is a chicken little approach to change” because it ignores the more innovative and effective native advertising programs that publishers are deploying.  

Todd Sawicki, president of Zemanta, a developer of content syndication tools, commented that the success of native advertising comes down to the quality of the content: “Readers will reject and ignore shitty content marketing attempts and they should but great content marketing (advertising really) … will be embraced by consumers because they are just great pieces of content.”

Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis D’Vorkin has emphasized this point repeatedly in discussing Forbes’ BrandVoice blogging program for advertisers, which has emerged as a key part of the company’s digital growth strategy.

“On the social web, consumers want content they feel is valuable,” D’Vorkin said in an interview last year. “They want it from experts, and they want it transparently identified about who’s delivering it. That’s a model that will be very powerful across the media landscape.”

But there are a rising number of examples that most rational people would consider “deceptive,” such as this Shell-sponsored landing page on the Houston Chronicle’s site. “Powered by Shell” is not a sufficiently transparent marker for sponsored content.

Even the statistics offer divergent perspectives. In a November 2012 Mediabrix survey, 86% of consumers said they found sponsored video ads that appear to be content misleading, and 66% said they found advertorials misleading.  A study released last week by Nielsen, however, found a more positive reaction to native video advertising. Nielsen compared the effectiveness of native video ads vs. pre-roll ads in five advertisers’ campaigns. The native ads were user-initiated and slightly longer versions of the 15- or 30-second pre-roll units.

For one campaign from Jarritos, a soft drink brand, the native ads generated 82% brand lift among users exposed to the ads, compared with a 2.1% brand lift for the auto-play pre-roll units.  In addition, viewers exposed to the pre-roll units were 29.3% more likely to say they viewed Jarritos “unfavorably” or “very unfavorably” than those who had not been exposed to the campaign.

Part of the challenge is that there’s no standard definition of native advertising. On a publisher’s website, native advertising can take many forms, from a sponsored blog to a fully hosted microsite to content from recommendation engines such as Outbrain. Publishers use words like “ingrained,” “embedded,” “interwoven” or “integrated” to describe a native ad’s relationship to the publisher’s own editorial content and site design. AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka defines native advertising more succinctly: “Ads you’d like to see.”

Publishers will need to clearly define their own view of native ads – and will need to adapt their digital operations, including policies and staff, accordingly. Selling native ads is not like selling banners, and sales teams have to be careful not to give too much freedom to advertisers under the guise of “innovation.” Some publishers are building a case for business-side editorial teams to help manage advertisers’ content.  

As publishers are discovering, native advertising offers a fine line between “innovative” and “insidious.” Developing native programs from the perspective of the audience, not just the advertiser, will help them stay on the right side of the line. 

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