Native Needs Fixing, Fast - Or Ad Blockers Will Prevail

It's been a pretty obvious position to hold for quite some time now, and it's one that Yahoo's Chief Executive Marissa Mayer spoke about yesterday in New York. Given the rising levels of ad-blocking -- particularly among millennials -- native advertising offers a bright future where messages can be conveyed through content positioned within a site's editorial flow. There's just one huge problem. Not that I want to blow my own trumpet, but it's one that I've been warning about for the past couple of years. The tricky thing is, people's trust in native is on the wane. Don't panic -- it's not too late, but native most definitely needs attention, and it has to come now to ensure it delivers on its promise of quality messaging that is immune from pesky ad blockers.

The trust revelation comes from Nielsen's latest Global Survey of Trust in Advertising, which sees a dip in trust for nearly all online advertising -- other than mobile advertising, which saw minor growth, but was starting from a pretty low base. The horror headline for ad executives is that the largest dip in trust -- down 8% to 56% -- comes with native advertising.

We'll get on to some reasons for this in a moment. But first, it's worth pointing out that although native has seen a dip it is still trusted by more than half of Internet users, putting it on an even footing with corporate Web sites and just behind consumer reviews, emails a person has subscribed to, and television ads. At trust ratings of just over 50%, all of these channels fall way behind the number one resource of word of mouth, which more than four in five consumers trust. So although native has seen a decline, it's still one of the most trusted channels -- although the alarm bells are ringing and action must still be taken to ensure that trust is stabilised and perhaps even improved.

I've blogged warnings in the past that digital publishers need to be much more responsible than some print publishers have been. In print we've had years of thinly disguised advertorial rubbing shoulders with editorial, often with no or little flagging up. In fact, open a supplement that falls out of a national newspaper, and in some instances, the editorial sources will closely match the supplement's sponsors and advertisers. It's a problem I have been vocal about for several years now.

The same can apply online -- but to their credit, many responsible publishers are now abiding by IAB guidelines that native is clearly labelled by some form of wording, such as "sponsored" or "advertising feature," although I have yet to see clear evidence that many are following the full letter of the guidelines by using different fonts or shading to make native stand out even more. Nevertheless, things have improved recently for some reputable publishers.

The problem will always be the brands that add content that isn't engaging and is clearly there just to sell a product. Obviously, that is the point of all advertising, but with native the reader has to feel there is a value exchange. As with any other article, they've got to feel they got something in return for letting them tell you that product or service x is better than others for a list of reasons.

There is also the huge issue of clickbait native typically placed at the bottom of articles at even the most reputable publishers (Daily Telegraph, you know who you are). Some are OK, but the majority are those terribly annoying "12 things that will change your life" with an assurance "number 3 will make you cry, number 7 will make you share."

I think if these were stripped out of the equation, just for research reasons, native within editorial copy flows would not have seen the largest drop of any other channel over the past two years. So it's time for publishers to get real with brands and have the guts to say what works and what doesn't -- and what the publisher will accept and what they won't. If you want a lesson in how to do this, check out any of the excellent hubs at The Guardian that are clearly labelled as sponsored, but from personal experience, I can tell you there is not one ounce of interference from the sponsoring brand.

If you want to see how moving from sponsorship to actually crafting the native yourself works, check out car titles. They will generally have very informative native articles on what makes a good winter tyre or why a fuel is better for an engine. They are always clearly labelled as such and they don't just shout about themselves. There's some education in there too.

Interestingly, however, you can see which ones have yet to reach their quota or reads because they tend to hang around on a car site's front page like a wallflower at a dance. They are nearly always headlined "why x car is the best SUV" or '"10 reasons to be an x." Therein lies the lesson. Readers don't want to read a total sales message. Educate, inform and entertain and most consumers will take part in the value exchange of swapping their attention for receiving a message.

This balance must be reached -- and that means brands can't get away with saying whatever they like and boring or misleading readers with marketing puff. Publishers are the experts at publishing -- and need to take a lead role in educating brands that if they are handed the keys to the native kingdom, success will be very short-lived and trust will be further eroded to a point where the channel ad execs were hoping would supplement blocked display turns out to have been ruined.

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