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Honesty in Advertising; the native ad debate...

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Most of us have learned to patiently live with social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram monetizing their audiences with native ads "in-feed", however some of us (e.g. me) have begun debating the efficacy and ethicality of publishers greedily jumping on board the native ad bandwagon, launching new advertising integrations on desktop and mobile to earn a fast buck.

Having worked for two of Australia's largest publishers I completely understand why the native push has come about. Fact is, CPMs and CTR's are dropping faster than an obese skydiver, on top of which everyday consumers are all but blind to display ads on websites, so I get it, Mr. Publisher, I do.

I know that native ads work simply because, for the most part, they are designed to match the visual design of the environment they live within. Yes, native ads work well for both brands and publishers because they look and feel like natural content. But where is the fine line between developing new ad formats that sit ever so subtly within editorial content, and doing the same thing not-so-subtly so that we ad-weary-consumers can recognise that what we're about to click on is actually an ad?

The future of display advertising was a hot topic during the recent Advertising Week in the US of A. And we all know why. It's because for the life of me I cannot remember the last time I clicked on a display ad - primarily because the way I navigate through a website (or out of a website) is via editorial links. And this is where the native ad issue lies, pardon the pun.

There's an issue of breach of trust when these native ads are so subtly integrated into a website that they literally 'trick' you into clicking, or worse, where they link bait you into leaving the website you're on by leading you to believe the link is relevant, when in many cases this isn't the case.

The question is: Are publishers breaching trust by looking for cunning ways to turn a quick buck at the expense of their audiences? Those of us who consume most of our news and information online are basically ad blind and ad fatigued from being bombarded by display over the years, but is this going to be the very same future for native ads when most realise that they are much the same as display?

Sure, some native advertising is undeniably adding value to the user journey – case in point the algorithmically propagated content appearing on the page that is semantically relevant to the editorial content on page. However, much of it seems to be, dare I say, link-baity and is starting to draw ire (and no longer draw the eye) as we become frustrated with it and eventually blind to it.

The key issue is transparency. Native ads work because they have ad content blending as seamlessly as possible into the page so they are, for all intents and purposes, viewed by the consumer as content. The amplification of this issue is that native advertising isn't a single-ad product. There are many varying native ad formats appearing, ranging from new sized banner ads, integrated recommended content placements and the "in-feed" ads that we all know (and love) within social channels.

If content continues to be the predominant raison d'être for consumers going online, why is it that publishers are creating doubt in consumers' minds by blurring the line between content and advertising? Forbes has done a fantastic job of creating clearly sponsored branded native ads within their editorial content mix, but it doesn't seem like we've got to this place as yet in Australia.

To me, it sort of feels like the ongoing privacy debate within Big Data debate. I believe it will be the publishers who put the consumers' needs first by (a) being transparent about what is native advertising, (b) ensuring the native links they publish are actually contextually relevant, and (c) who innovate in native ad design (whilst remaining transparent) are the publishers who'll ultimately win the native race.

But guess we'll have to wait and see ...


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Guest Sunday, 23 October 2016