In this companion piece, I want to tackle another storm cloud hovering over the native advertising space, one that if not dispersed, could rain all over the current parade of passion and dollars into the sector. Simply put, this column is all about the perils of deception.
As someone, who is spiritually and financially vested in the success of native advertising, I want only the best for the industry as a whole – rising tides lift all boats, after all. So I’m concerned by a proliferation of shady practices dotting the native ecosystem. In order for the native ad space to leverage its full potential, all practitioners must meet an unimpeachable standard of integrity for presenting brand-sponsored digital content to consumers. For native advertising in particular, the risks are existential.
I’m not being alarmist here, just trying to help steer us all to the promised land. Once you confuse, annoy and even piss off consumers in a meaningful way, as history has shown in any sales and marketing context, it is extremely difficult to win them back.
Put simply, consumer trust is paramount for native advertising. To that end, publishers must not “disguise” sponsored posts as anything but paid, non-editorial content.
Historically, it was as rare as Haley’s Comet for a consumer to mistake a banner ad for content. The clumsiness, discordant color and design schemes of banners within the context of the signature feel of a publisher site left almost no room for misinterpretation.
But in the world of sponsored posts, the margin for error is much narrower. Your grandma should be able to discern a sponsored post from a regular editorial one. And she should know what that means. Most publishers should be credited for a rigorous dedication to the clear identification of sponsored content, but some bad actors are threatening to ruin things for the rest of us by blurring the line.
The most dangerous scenario is if a publisher opts to have a user click through to an on-site “sponsored “post. This is an understandable temptation, because publishers want to keep consumers on their sites. But when this happens, there are precisely two potential outcomes: 1) the content is of poor quality, not precisely targeted to that publisher’s subject matter, and undermines the publisher’s editorial voice and integrity; or 2) the content is of moderate or high quality, and the consumer is deceived about the content’s provenance, in which case the publisher’s editorial voice is also undermined -- just over a longer term.
In either case -- besides the disadvantage of not allowing brands to control the conversion path, as I argued in my previous piece -- this onsite click-through mechanism exacerbates the confusion or misinterpretation of the consumer. To date, we tend to see scant evidence that the sponsored content was not written by the editorial team. We’d expect to see vivid indications that it is not true editorial content, including distinct visual designs that clearly explain that the content is not editorial.
In one prominent example on a major automotive website, the sponsored content for an automobile manufacturer had “Promoted Post” in tiny grey text on a white background, in what was otherwise indistinguishable from editorial content. An overlay ad for a different auto company, and a banner ad for yet another auto brand surrounded the content, completely undermining the brand’s voice.
This article showed the absolute worst of native advertising. If you arrived at this article other than through a clearly marked link (for example, through social media), you might never have known that this article didn’t represent any editorial voice –- and we should hope that this wasn’t the goal. More important, the advertiser is paying for sponsored content that was completely undermined by the fact that it ceded control to the publisher.
The fact that we are now seeing deceptive native ads does not actually come as a big surprise. The native space is populated partly by older businesses that have pivoted into native to maintain their legacy positions, which unfortunately often comes at the cost of offering the best possible consumer experience. It’s incumbent upon the entire ecosystem to hold everyone to an unimpeachable standard of integrity. Growing pains are expected and even acceptable -- as long as they don’t evolve into a general modus operandi for business.