Are Native Ads a Little Too Native?


Ever find yourself clicking a headline or reading what you thought was an article, only to find that it was a carefully constructed piece of advertising? If so, you’re not alone.


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Fake news is all the rage these days, however it isn’t the only reason readers frequently feel deceived. According to research done by the content marketing firm Contently, in partnership with the Tow-Knight Center at CUNY and Radius Global Market Research, as many as 44% of people shown native advertising – which is advertising made to look like editorial, graphical or other content native to a news outlet or magazine – couldn’t correctly identify the source of the advertisement, and 54% of people felt deceived by that content. A smaller, but still significant group even described the advertising as actual editorial content. This could be because many advertisers don’t adhere to Federal Trade Commission guidelines governing native advertising, but it could also be because as content channels grow and technology evolves, the ways in which outlets are incorporating advertising are growing with them. This makes it harder for regulators to police and easier for readers to be deceived, but this rapid change also provides opportunities for advertisers to share their message.

After all, native ads aren’t necessarily nefarious, nor are they new. As the media industry grapples with how to capture revenue from an online news audience that is always growing, and often able to find what it needs without paying for it, these so-called native ads are becoming a growing part of a news outlet’s fiscal equation. They can be great for businesses, too. These ads allow organizations or brands to pay for virtual real estate under a respected masthead without having to clear as significant an editorial hurdle as is often required to get reporters to cover specific issues. Publishers will also use their own social channels to drive traffic to these pieces. (Fortunately, we’ve already told you how to spot an ad on social media).

It is no secret that every news organization also has a business division, but what is less-known is that newspapers, magazines and websites often hire news writers to work in that division. These are essentially news writers for hire who can create pieces that adhere to editorial standards, but promote content that supports a perspective or position held by a business or organization. Contrary to what you might think, print outlets do it too.

While Contently’s research points to areas of concern regarding the trust in this content, the same research also shows that these ads can work. The survey found that 59% of consumers who were interested in a native ad were more likely to purchase from that brand as a result and that 78% of consumers were “extremely” or “somewhat” interested in the content after reading a native ad vs 22% who were “not very” or “not at all” interested. Though the survey showed that while publishers can get a boost in trust from a customer’s positive association with a brand, it also showed that publishers can take a hit if they run ads from untrusted brands. Just as there is a distinction in the impact on publications from different brands, publications can see reactions to content that vary by generation of the user. Millennials, it turns out, are the most likely generation to trust native ads, particularly compared to baby boomers who were the most skeptical.

We know that “trust” in virtually every major institution is already on the endangered list – and that media organizations often bear the brunt of that mistrust. But for those of us hoping to leave people with a positive feeling about an idea or product, how can we avoid leaving people feeling deceived?

These sponsored content pieces, or native ads, open up exciting opportunities for communicators like us who are always looking for new ways to tell our clients’ stories. Yet, part of the challenge is not becoming part of the trust problem. It is important to remember that readers are potential customers or supporters. It is also important to embrace the editorial standards set by a media outlet. Those standards are there to protect the outlet’s credibility, but they’re also there to protect readers. Further, this approach to advertising is designed, in part, to lend credibility to the idea or product featured. Don’t water that down; stick to the facts, but tell the story in an engaging and interesting way.

Organizations, companies or campaigns should view native ads as merely one arrow in their quiver and not an end-run around newspapers. There are so many exciting ways for people to engage with content today online, from mobile devices to car-based holograms. We should embrace these tools to create immersive and interesting opportunities to inform, persuade or capture audiences, tell a compelling story and potentially build trust so that readers feel empowered – not deceived.