Is there anything more annoying than clicking on a headline or video on a favorite website, only to discover you’re actually consuming an ad? There are times when native advertising, is informative and useful. But it’s easy to get angry when you feel duped into clicking.
Native advertising is hardly a new concept. It’s been around for over a century. Lengthy advertorials appeared in the magazines of the early 1900’s. When radio took off, sponsored programs were the norm. In the 90’s you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing an infomercial (STOP THE INSANITY!) But with the advent of the internet, it seems people have chosen sides. Some feel native advertising is slimy. Others find it to be a far more appealing approach than traditional forms of advertising.
The Prickly Native Advertising Pickle
Native advertising is paid content that blends into the form and the function of the platform on which it appears. Currently, there are no true and set standards for native ads, so some publishers are far more transparent than others when it comes to native content.
Marketers find themselves in a prickly position when it comes to native ads. How can you incorporate sponsored content into your overarching strategy without alienating the very people you’re trying to connect with? Publishers also find themselves in a precarious situation. If they accept money from Geico to produce content about their products and services, how can they be expected to report objectively on that company? How do they walk the line between paying the bills and maintain the trust of their readership?
The Current Native Advertising Landscape
If you are considering dipping your toes into sponsored content, It’s worth examining the current landscape:
- Nearly half of all US consumers do not know what native advertising is.
- Of the half that does know what it is, over 50% say they are skeptical of native advertising.
- 75% of publishers offer native advertising on their platforms.
- 41% of national brands currently incorporate native advertising into their marketing strategy.
- It is estimated that native advertising will rake in $8.8 billion annually by 2018.
- 53% of users say they would be more likely to click a native ad than a banner ad.
When Native Advertising Works
In order for native advertising to create a win-win-win for brands, publishers and consumers, it must be useful and it must be relevant. In fact, the best native advertising can be classified as true journalism. Take, for example, “Women Inmates: Separate But Not Equal,” which appeared in The New York Times. Sponsored by Netflix to promote their series “Orange is the New Black,” the article focuses on the unique issues facing women in US prisons today. Someone who is interested in the topic of women in prison would likely be interested in the show, which takes place in a women’s correctional institution.
Netflix chose to create informative, engaging content that would appeal to potential viewers and they matched it with a platform that made sense. While the article was clearly labeled an ad for a television show, the piece was not promotional and did not use any hard-sell tactics. Readers could feel safe sharing the content with others, without alienating their own network.
When Native Advertising Doesn’t Work
The biggest problem with native advertising is the potential for eroding consumer relationships for both the publisher and the advertiser. When native advertising is poorly executed, it leaves people feeling cheated and lied to. The moment a customer feels that a brand they love has been dishonest with them, the relationship becomes fractured.
Popular televisions shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and South Park have tackled the native advertising problem head-on. Oliver’s rant went viral (two years later, it’s still capturing views), and the South Park episode titled “Sponsored Content” included this tirade from Stephen Stotch:
“I got so used to getting news off the internet, but I feel like I’m always trying to chase the news somehow. It’s like I’m in a black void trying to reach the news story, but then the next thing I know, I’m reading an ad for Geico. So I click out of that and try to read the news story, but it’s not a news story, it’s a slide show. And I’m looking at the worst celebrity plastic surgery jobs ever. So, of course I want to see the next slide of plastic surgery gone wrong, so I hit the arrow. But then the arrow wasn’t the arrow for the next slide, it was to take me for an ad for face cream. I wanted to get a new story, but I’m reading about face cream, and I try to click out of it but the ad is following me. It’s following me all over the screen! No! So I click on the close button, but it wasn’t a close button, it was another slide show! And I just want to know what’s happening in the Middle East, but instead, I’m looking at the ‘Top 10 scariest movies of all time’! And that’s not the arrow for the next slide, it’s for another ad. Ahhh!”
It happens to all of us, Stephen.
An ad is an ad, whether it is a banner, a sidebar, or an article on a trustworthy news site. When half of all consumers can’t tell the difference between an ad and the news, publishers and advertisers have a real, ethical problem on their hands.
When Native Advertising Just Goes Wrong
Among those who believe native advertising is pure evil, the case of Scientology and The Atlantic is often cited. The Church of Scientology created native content praising David Miscavige (who, by most accounts is pure evil himself, but that’s a discussion for another time). The content looked like any other article in The Atlantic, it was not clearly labeled as paid content, it appeared to be an endorsement of a controversial figure, and readers went ballistic. Less than 12 hours after publishing it, the magazine pulled the piece and quickly developed strict native advertising guidelines. Of course, through the magic of the internet, you can still find it.
How Not To Screw It Up
There is no foolproof formula for creating successful native ads. If you’re going to venture into native territory, make sure to approach with caution. First and foremost, commit to providing useful, engaging, informative content that is not overtly self-promotional. Most people are fine with a paid article or video if it is relevant, truthful, entertaining and/or informative.
Transparency and authenticity are also crucial for native advertising success. If you trick the audience, they will be upset when the truth is revealed. Make sure you are clear and up-front about your role in creating the content so you don’t fracture relationships with existing or potential customers.
Consumers want ads on their own terms. Consider this: most people complain about commercials, but the majority of Americans who tune into the Super Bowl stay glued to their seats during commercial breaks. They know they are consuming ads, and they are ok with it because they know brands go out of their way to be entertaining during The Big Game.
Native advertising is a polarizing strategy, but by all accounts, it’s here to stay. If you venture into native territory, create a thoughtful plan and partner with platforms that make sense for your brand and are committed to transparency. If you have any doubts about a particular piece or publishing partner, listen to your gut. It’s better to forego publishing an article than to alienate your customers.