Earth To Media: Consumers Really Are Onto This Whole 'Sponsored Content' Dodge

As the native ad drum beat grew louder over the last few years, and publishers desperately dove into the swamp of so-called “sponsored content” in their feeds and deals with content remarketing networks, we heard one constant refrain: “The consumers just want good content. They don’t care whether it comes from the publisher or a sponsor.”

The refrain actually became something like a quasi-religious chant, the kind acolytes sing to themselves in the hopes that repetition will make the magical thinking true.  

Well, there are two problems with the chant. First, even the most forgiving observer of this native ad phenomenon in action has to admit that few of these in-feed units deliver on the promise of quality content the reader really wants. My feed runneth over with irrelevant crap. Most of these units are just barely disguised pitches. And the content recommendation networks have become eyesores of irrelevant click bait. Are publishers watching what some of these companies are planting on the sides of their articles as “targeted” recommendations?

Second, most users do, in fact, seem to care about the source of the content on a publisher’s site -- and feel deceived when an ad poses as editorial. The content marketing agency Contently just published a survey it conducted among over 500 online content consumers about how they perceive so-called “sponsored content.”

The exact meaning of that widely used tag is still unclear to many readers. About half (48.2%) defined the format as meaning “that a sponsor paid for and influenced the content,” while another 12.4% felt it meant the sponsor wrote the content. But 20% took the term to mean that the news site wrote the content, financed by the sponsor, and another 18% took it to mean the sponsor simply paid for its name to be placed next to existing content.  Only about a third of readers say they are just as likely to click on sponsored content if it looks interesting. Two-thirds say the label actually makes them less likely to click.

So perhaps publishers can use these numbers to rationalize the practice and say that most readers seem to get the gist of the native format. Well, not so fast. A large majority (66.6%) of those surveyed say they have felt deceived by sponsored articles or videos they thought were standard editorial. Those numbers go up the more educated the user, by the way. More-educated readers also say they are much less likely to click on sponsored content.

But here is the real killer stat. A clear majority of users (57.26%) said they actually preferred banner ads on a site rather than sponsored posts. Among those who still preferred native ads, only 18.27% argued that the sponsored content was just more interesting. And for those who think Millennials have a lower bar for the squishy line native ads create, think again. The preference for banner ads over sponsored content was pretty consistent across the demos.

Finally, 53.9% of respondents said they don’t trust sponsored content. Among the minority who say they do trust it under some circumstances, the trust is contingent either on previous confidence in the advertiser or with the publisher. The media brand gets the brunt of this distrust, since 58.7% say a news site loses credibility when it runs sponsored content articles.

For Contently, which has a vested interest in the formats succeeding, all these metrics mean “it’s time to get it right,” says editor-in-chief Joe Lazauskus.

I think the study raises questions on whether mistrust is something that gets fixed by branded content somehow getting “better.” It seems clear to me that the formats have created real distrust about the media experience itself online, with readers showing some frustration over the sourcing of their information.

"Trust a cloud massage on sky" photo from Shutterstock.


2 comments about "Earth To Media: Consumers Really Are Onto This Whole 'Sponsored Content' Dodge".
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  1. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, July 14, 2014 at 2:39 p.m.

    One of these days the inmates running the asylum will realize that no one wants any ads, native or otherwise. John Wanamaker didn't realize how good he had it!

  2. Maria Shinkevich from MGID, July 18, 2014 at 1:59 p.m.

    We have consistently seen data on our platform that demonstrates native advertising generates the same quality traffic as organic search. This suggests that users are not interested necessarily in whether or not the content is "paid for," but rather if the content is both high quality and also relevant to them.

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