Have you ever read an article praising a product and wondered, “Is this sponsored?”
The thought crosses my mind frequently in this era of native advertising. A while back, I read an Atlantic article about social anxiety app Joyable that seemed too favorable to be objective. I figured the content was sponsored; it turns out it wasn’t.
This is the problem with native ads today. Thanks to fake news, clickbait, and the confusing milieu of “sponsored content,” it’s difficult to distinguish quality content from sub-par content and objective articles from sponsored articles. Native ads are reaching the breaking point.
Consumers are tiring of content disguised as something it’s not. And that could be the death knell for a content format that many marketers have been banking on.
Native ads aren’t a new phenomenon, but today’s digital landscape and marketing technology have revolutionized the concept. As early as the late 1890s, brands were writing content to tell stories and expose people to their brand. Agricultural magazine The Furrow from John Deere contained articles on farming while featuring ads for Deere products, as Pressboard Media notes. The rise of radio and TV in the twentieth century led to new opportunities for brands to sponsor content. The term soap opera, for example, arose from the soap manufacturers that typically sponsored the programs.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. The internet and new marketing technology tools have given rise to a host of advertising formats, including the now-ubiquitous native ads.
Native ads are a hot marketing tactic, given their ROI advantages compared to other advertising formats, as we’ve written about before. Native ads mimic the format of their host platform, and users tend to interact with them more than traditional digital ads. Facebook and Instagram sponsored posts are perhaps the most recognizable examples of the native ad format. But publishers are also heavily invested in native ads, and whether readers have realized it or not, they’ve more than likely engaged with sponsored content from their favorite publishers, too. The Atlantic, for example, generates 75 percent of its ad revenue from native ads, Digiday reported in 2016.
The growth of native ads is impressive. Research firm IHS predicts that by 2020, 63 percent of mobile display advertising will be native.
All of this means that consumers are being bombarded by native ads at a level never seen before.
As the number of native ad opportunities increases, so too will consumer skepticism about the value of this content form. Several factors are coming into play now that will hamper the effectiveness of native ads.
Fake news entered the national lexicon thanks to the recent election. Buoyed by social media, false stories from questionable publishers spread wildly throughout the election cycle. When you look at some of the most widely shared fake election stories on Facebook, as analyzed by Buzzfeed, you immediately notice the clickbait headlines that tempt you to click and share, even if the content smells a little funny. Fake news thrives by attempting to deceive. Great awareness about fake news and clickbait means everyone is more cynical about the content they see.
Fake news isn’t just bad for social media platforms or for publishers. Brands, too, will see spillover effects from the fake news problem. Users are on high alert for content that appears fake or deceptive. It’s not hard to imagine native ads being perceived as deceptive and lumped in with the fake news bad guys.
The other problem publishers and brands are grappling with is delivering really good content. It’s easy to craft a headline that gets someone to click or tap. It’s not that easy to get a reader to parse through a 500-word article and actually feel like they got something out of it. Any time a brand delivers less-than-great content, it undermines consumer trust in content overall. It only takes a bad apple or two for people to distrust a brand’s content.
The issue of appropriately labeling marketing content has dogged marketers, publishers, and influencers. Consumers need a way to readily identify whether or not content is a paid promotion, and plenty of publishers and brands try and obfuscate this information. Whether it’s “promoted,” “sponsored,” or “#ad,” brands and publishers need to pick a label and be transparent about what it means. Deliberately deceiving people is a recipe for disaster.
Brands need to understand that consumer trust is fundamentally fragile, and content is no exception. Transparency helps build trust. Content marketing means delivering great content, every time. And if you’re offering a native ad, don’t disguise it.
There are plenty of examples of effective, clearly labeled native ads. Take this sponsored post on the popular lifestyle blog Cup of Jo. The blog post praises a sticker book from Pinhole Press, complete with beautiful photography of the bloggers’ kids using the product. At the end of the article, the blogger identifies the sponsorship and offers a sincere note thanking readers for supporting the brand. It works to build authenticity around a partnership that might otherwise be considered suspect.
But beyond following native ad best practices, brands need to stop thinking of native ads as a cure-all for their content woes. Marketing trends rise and fall, and already signs are pointing to the fall of the native ad as a content unit. User tolerance of native ads—like other forms of advertising—is finite. Tread carefully, because the native advertising boom may soon go bust.