Transparency Can Solidify Blurred Lines -- No Need To Regulate

As reported in Online Media Daily, last week, the IAB released its Native Advertising Playbookto help guide practitioners to the best possible path. The Playbook defines native advertising as paid ads that are “so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.” Native ads are divided into six categories: in-feed units, paid search units, recommendation widgets, promoted listings, IAB standard ads with “native” element units (these are the “open” native units I favor – standard native ads that can be traded programmatically), and “custom/can’t be contained.” That last category includes ads on platforms like Pandora and Flipboard.



At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is discussing how consumers relate to branded content. Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the FTC, noted, “The delivery of relevant messages and cultivating user engagement are important goals, of course… But it’s equally important that advertising not mislead consumers. By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a nonbiased source.” The question is whether the practice requires government regulation.

This all occurs at a time in our industry’s history when consumers are “banner-blind,” and native seems to be just what the doctor ordered. But are we generating higher engagement rates at the expense of consumer trust? Do consumers even care whether content is sponsored, so long as it’s great content?

Whether consumers care or not, the onus is on us as an industry to ensure there’s not a whiff of “bait and switch” in our native advertising strategies. As advertisers become publishers, transparency becomes more important than ever. Consumers don’t like feeling duped. No one does. We have to make sure they’re getting a fair value exchange: great content in exchange for attention and data.

Of course, when the advertisement looks like an advertisement, notice becomes a little less of an issue. That’s just one of the reasons I favor the IAB standard flavor of native advertising. Content within a standard ad unit is far less likely to be confused with unpaid media. Some may argue that this format is less effective than an advertorial that looks like editorial, but that’s generally not the case. Content within a standard ad unit can still be relevant and compelling. A movie trailer for “Ironman” is going to be just as awesome in an expanded IAB Filmstrip. An Instagram featuring Emma Watson rocking her new Burberry coat is going to get just as many ‘likes’ if it’s populating a module on an IAB Portrait – especially if it’s contextualized in Vogue and one of the other modules featuring editorial headlines about winter fashion trends.

While these native ads look less like editorial content, they can be customized to match the look, feel and functionality of a site – plus, they earn their weight (and then some) in relevance. Because these native ad units can be traded programmatically, they benefit from data-driven targeting and optimization. The content featured within the ads can be relevant to audience that sees them, and contextually relevant to the content on the page. So a native ad on Car and Driver can target moms in Chicago and feature an HD video of a Lexus SUV with a third row, driving through the snowy streets of the Windy City. The same ad shown to a businessman in New York can feature a video of a Lexus sedan driving over the GWB. The ad unit may be “standard,” but the content can be optimized for maximum relevance and impact. Optimizing the content within the unit is the key – not just optimizing the ad unit.

And of course, the advertorial content should still be identified as such. We shouldn’t have a problem with that. Google has gone so far as to highlight the “ad” label on its mobile search results pages. The company is confident that its native ads are relevant enough to earn clicks, regardless. Similarly, our focus should be on providing high-quality, compelling and relevant content that audiences are eager to consume – despite a “sponsored” label.

3 comments about "Transparency Can Solidify Blurred Lines -- No Need To Regulate".
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  1. The digital Hobo from, December 10, 2013 at 5:30 p.m.

    Great post, Skip. But the problem isn't with the good guys. Its with the "other" guys. We've proven as an industry, over and over again, that we can't be trusted to do the right thing. There are so many lines being crossed that "blurred" would be a great step forward.

  2. William Buckley from FarePlay, December 10, 2013 at 9:56 p.m.

    While we're at, we need to have a serious discussion about the proliferation of Fortune 500 advertising on and supporting infringing websites that offer copyrighted content without compensation.

    This practice is disgraceful and needs far more attention. For those not familiar with this practice can either reference the confining research from the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, supervised by Jonathan Taplin or the extensive research that led to this research by David Lowery, on the music side, onthe Trichordist and Ellen Seidler on the film side with her film Pop-Up Pirates and her site VoxIndie.

  3. Jesse Casselberry from J4 Media, December 11, 2013 at 10:37 a.m.

    We're all consumers too, afterall, and from my consumer perspective I enjoy what Forbes (magazine) is doing with Brand Voice. Time and again I read it without realizing that it's sponsored content. The Brand Voice messages are well crafted to be timely, relevant, and important and a great example of how we should move forward as an industry both in print and online.

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