Native Advertising: For Better Or Worse

The industry buzzword that is not going away anytime soon is clearly “native advertising.” Visit any industry publication, and there will be at least one recent article on the subject (I guess this is one, too). From simply trying to determine what the heck native advertising actually means, to expressing outrage when it’s perceived to cross ethical lines (i.e., The Atlantic’s Scientology saga), to commentators espousing the virtues of the format – you can’t escape it. Like it or not, the native ad isn’t going anywhere, so let’s focus on how we can make native advertising a good experience for the industry and audiences.

Native Advertising (and Bad Native Ads) is Older Than We Think

While the term “native advertising” may be new (I really wish we had picked a different name), the concept behind it isn’t. Advertisers have long been creating content through sponsorships and shaping the context of what we read and watch; consider Ronald Reagan’s and General Electric’s partnership on sponsored presidential messages. These presidential campaign speeches are still used by General Electric’s marketing to this day. Or remember the winter Olympics of ’96, when the news anchors were decked out in Nike gear? Likely not, but this partnership caused controversy when CBS reporter Roberta Baskin had her exposé covering Nike sweatshops suppressed to prevent damaging the CBS-Nike relationship. And let’s not forget the infamous examples of “physician-approved messages” for cigarette companies dating back to the 1930s. We will likely see more examples of native ads (ethical and unethical) in our digital era, when native advertisements offer another viable revenue stream for publishers. 

Beyond ads with questionable ethics, there are plenty of examples of native ads that are simply “bad.” Audiences are smart, savvy, and will be turned off when advertisers try too hard to pawn their brand off as content that doesn’t have real entertainment or informational value. Audiences almost immediately jumped on The Atlantic’s Scientology sponsorship, causing the content to be pulled less than 12 hours after its publication, and users haven’t been hesitant to voice their dismay for native ads on Facebook, Twitter, and Buzzfeed when they felt the ads detracted from the user experience.

It’s not always easy to create an ad that successfully serves as real content. Often, native ads just don’t hit the right chord. (Advertisers behind the Orbitz Dirty Shorts campaign had probably hoped for more than 378,000 views on YouTube.) Digital video advertising, relatively new compared to television, creates opportunities for brands to innovate -- but when not done correctly, these ads can distract from the core proposition of delivering the right message to the right audience in the right context.

Not All Native Advertising is Bad

Just because there are a few extreme examples of bad native ads doesn’t mean the format can’t provide value to the industry. A quick search online reveals several that elevated the advertiser, as well as provided the audience with interesting, legitimate content that they wanted to interact with:

  • Draw the Line – Sign the Bill is a great example of advertisers using a native video ad to actively engage the audience in politics.
  • The Seizing Opportunities Series (oldie, but goodie), sponsored by UPS, provided audiences with short-form educational content on a variety of business and finance topics from leading digital commentators (i.e., Mashable, TechDirt, VentureBeat).
  • Plastic toy company Little Tikes created Little Tikes Land, which integrates its brand (and even its toys) into a show for children.

Let’s Get Constructive

Instead of focusing our energy on complaining about native ads, we should provide advertisers with a framework for creating better audience experiences. We should encourage the industry to create standards for native ads that tap into real audience interests and encourage engagement without misleading or annoying. 

1.     Clearly label content as sponsored. Whether the ad is an image, video, or article, make sure the reader knows who and what they are interacting with. This doesn’t mean the content has to be fully branded, which obviously would defeat the purpose of native ads, but do make it clear the content is sponsored. This can be done using a simple statement, like “brought to you by” or “sponsored by.”

2.     Provide real value. If the audience feels tricked, misled, or even annoyed by the content, they will tune out, and both the publisher and the advertiser lose. Create content that has real entertainment or informational value that audiences engage with and share.

Until all video stakeholders work to establish and enforce standards for native advertising, bad examples will continue to persist, and we will get locked in these unproductive debates surrounding native advertising ethics. Once we accept that native advertising isn’t going anywhere, we can focus on ensuring a better experience for the audience.

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