Native Ads: Clear Rules of Engagement Will Help Marketers And Publisher Alike

  • by February 25, 2015
Under the Articles of War, “it is unlawful for a warship to go into action without first showing her true colors.”

That’s a good rule for marketers and publishers to keep in mind as they consider how to incorporate native ads into their marketing mix.

According to a recently published ANA study,  almost two-thirds of marketers contacted said they planned to increase their use of this hot marketing tool in 2015. The ANA notes that advertisers are finding that native advertising is able to create “extremely relevant associations between the brand and consumer via content.” But the study also shows that advertisers -- perhaps even more than publishers -- are well aware that “native advertising needs clear disclosure that it is, indeed, advertising.”  In fact, advertisers feel “disclosure/transparency is the single biggest issue about native advertising.”

Bob Liodice, President and CEO of the ANA, made this point clear, noting:Marketers have a responsibility to be transparent to maintain trust, and they must play a lead role in working with publishers to ensure proper disclosure.”

As advertisers increasingly utilize this particular variant of content marketing -- the ANA says 58% of its respondents are already using it -- the media has expressed concern about the harm such ads can cause if a brand is seen as being deceitful.

Some commentators, notably HBO’s John Oliver, treat the term “native ad” as practically a synonym for “deceit,” arguing that its whole purpose is to trick unwary viewers/readers by disguising content as editorial. That can clearly damage a brand’s relationship with its consumers: two-thirds of respondents in a study by Contently said that they had “felt deceived realizing an article was sponsored by a brand." In fact, publishers who do not properly label native advertising may risk violating FTC guidance.

That's why it’s heartening to see the ANA demonstrating ethical leadership as the industry grapples with the pros and cons of native advertising. This is likely to be very helpful to publishers, who might occasionally have felt that advertisers are pressuring them into using a type of content with the potential to compromise their editorial. Acknowledging the need for transparency will help to allow healthy growth of a useful marketing tool.

In fact, the best way to ensure the effectiveness of native advertising is for advertisers to make crystal-clear their sponsorship role. They should, in naval terms, “show the colors” prominently and demonstrate that they are proud to present the content. That will eliminate the possibility of harming the brand -- and in fact will contribute to positive images of it. But here’s the thing: The content must be high-quality, so it's indeed worthy of the brand’s sponsorship.

Quality ultimately may be in the eye of the beholder, but the simple rule of thumb for an advertiser considering a native ad should be: Am I proud to associate my brand with this content?  If not, association with the content will weaken the authority of your brand.

My own company has an explicit set of native ad guidelines :

1. Make sure the sponsor relationship is front and center.

2. Use clear language such as “Advertisement” or “Paid Post.”

3.  Use physical markers such as borders and differentiating background or font colors to distinguish from editorial content.

4.  Sponsorship disclosures need to travel with the content wherever it appears.

A similar set of guidelines, if adopted by the industry, would put an end to the perception that native ads are by their nature deceptive.

The ship captains of old always sailed into battle with their colors flying, clearly announcing their identity in accordance with the articles of war noted above. The articles are clear about going into action under false colors: “The use of unlawful deceptions is called ‘perfidy.’"

Marketers, confident in the quality of their content, should nail their colors to the mast and go full speed ahead into native advertising.

1 comment about "Native Ads: Clear Rules of Engagement Will Help Marketers And Publisher Alike".
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  1. Charles Arcella from, February 25, 2015 at 2:20 p.m.

    To me, some of your rules would make the content seem like advertorial, or sponsored content. The beauty of native content, in my view, is that the editorial integrity remains intact. The key is to "co-present" the edit together, openly, between publisher and brand, yet have the editorial remain a trusted, objective take on an important topic. In this case, i do not see the need of Rules 2 and 4, though 1 and 3 seem right. Just my two cents! And a antive ad (not content) like Yahoo!'s edit feed on the homepage, should indeed be marked clearly as "paid", "sponsored" and the like - but i feel native ads are different than native "content." Good post - loving this new MediaPost channel!

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