We spend our lives immersed in advertising, indirectly or directly applied. From the branded clothes we wear and the badged cars we drive to the commercials we wish we could skip while watching live TV and the blinking banners we try to block in our web browsers, we’re confronted with consumer choices presented by advertisers and brands pretty much constantly.
For businesses, finding the balance between tastefully promoting a product or service and overselling it has been a challenge met with varying degrees of success. You can probably think of examples from either end of the spectrum.
For consumers, the line between tasteful, acceptable promotion and annoying overselling can depend on personal limits, but in general, the preference is to learn about a company’s offerings in the least obtrusive way possible.
The accommodation of that consumer preference is behind what is paradoxically one of the most intrusive and worrying advertising trends on the web: native advertising.
Also called “sponsored content”, native advertising is mostly seen on content-driven websites like The New York Times, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic and other sites where journalism is practiced in one form or another. Native ads are pieces of content that mostly appear at a glance to be articles produced by the host site, but in reality are either ads directly produced by an advertiser or ads produced on behalf of an advertiser by writers employed by the host site.
How these pieces are called out as distinct from actual content varies, but the idea behind this mode of advertising is to keep it unobtrusive and maintain the reader’s experience. That’s because declining revenues from traditional online advertising have demonstrated a failure of the more obvious ad display options. Users either ignore or block text and banner ads. Advertisers know this and rates go down as a result, which put the long-term viability of online ad-supported publishing in doubt, especially for sites that don’t have an effective paywall in place.
So some sites have turned to native advertising. These ads offer advertisers a way to get in under consumers’ radars, which have been tuned to ignore previous display ads. This increased reach means higher rates, which in theory means a better long-term outlook for these content-driven websites.
What these sites end up with, however, is a muddied user experience. They are risking the dilution of their own brand by incorporating advertiser content in this way. Think of it like this: would you trust your doctor’s recommendation more or less if you knew for fact she had financial motivation to suggest a given drug?
As consumers become more aware of these types of ads and start to learn to screen them out like they have the prior models, the pressure will be on the host sites to reduce the distinction between their content and their advertisers. It’s possible to follow such a trajectory down to a point where ad content is virtually indistinguishable from host site content (who reads bylines any more, right?). That would put all of the host site’s content in doubt.
Not all websites on the native content track will stick it out to that eventuality, but those that do will have bought themselves a few more years of viability at the cost of the relationship of trust they had with their own readers.
This is a game of whack-a-mole that advertisers and websites will have a hard time winning. Users will eventually recognize the signs and force a pivot to a new method of advertising that may hit the scene after trust has already been broken, making it too late for the host site. Traditional ad support for content-driven sites looks like a race to the bottom.
The revenue problem content-driven sites face is real, especially for journalism sites — as the stats show. Content production is expensive and time-consuming, but the expectation has been set by years of the open internet that content wants to be free. Native advertising is just one of the many models these sites are turning to in an attempt to staunch the wound, but it seems like a contaminated bandage if it comes at the cost of your own brand identity.
When I had more time to write my own content-driven website, a blog about the Detroit Red Wings, I accepted text ads in the sidebar. But I refused offers from advertisers that demanded I post their content or include their ads in the main content area of my site. I did that because I felt I had built a trust with my readers over the years. To inject content I couldn’t stand behind in the same place as content I had labored over felt like betrayal of that trust.
I had the privilege of doing that as a hobby and never had to rely on revenue from that site to make a living or to employ other writers. So I don’t envy the choice faced by executives at places like The New York Times, who are tasked with the long-term survival of their company. But I know there has to be another way — a way that doesn’t spite their nose to save their face.