The Native Advertising Trend: Hot or Hoax?

native advertising

By Neicole Crepeau, Contributing {grow} Columnist

Native advertising.  It’s all the buzz. Marketers are enthralled with it, and studies suggest spending on native advertising will increase significantly in 2013. Let’s take a reality check of this big trend.

Why all the excitement?

Traditional ads that display on blogs and publisher’s sites are easy to spot. That’s led to what advertisers call “ad blindness,” the tendency for readers to ignore ad blocks on websites. Native advertising helps counter ad blindness by embedding the advertising into the site more subtly.

Definitions vary, but in general, native advertising is content presented in a way that closely fits the tone and style of the online publication where it is shown. Facebook’s sponsored posts and Buzzfeed’s presented-by stories are oft-cited examples. Native advertising goes beyond this, though.

Native advertising blurs the lines between paid and earned content, and it’s creeping into the blogosphere as well. More successful bloggers are accepting payment for posts and links, and establishing all manner of sponsorships and partnerships whereby they promote and write about companies and products for pay.  Most of the bloggers I know appear to be responsible and are following the FTC disclosure rules. However, since those rules aren’t well enforced, it’s unclear how many bloggers and publishers aren’t giving disclosures.

The opportunity for bloggers

As a blogger, I’ve been approached in the last year with several native advertising/sponsored content opportunities. They ranged in form. Some would have me produce the content, usually as an article that looks much like the publisher’s content except for my bio at the end. I would then pay to have it hosted on the publisher’s site, with links to the content embedded on the publisher’s site in such a way that they look like links to the publisher’s own content.

In other cases, the opportunity was to jointly-develop content development/presentations, such as joint webinars along with white papers I’d produce. I would pay for run-of-network promotion.

In yet other cases, I’d pay for advertising or a white paper promotion, but as part of the package, I’d also provide information to the publisher about a product or topic. The publisher’s own writers would then write and publish an article on my product/topic. I was told that this was done to keep the content “unbiased” and accurate — but since I would be paying the publisher, how unbiased could it really be?

You can see how fuzzy the lines are getting.  As the amount of native advertising and sponsored content rises, we’ll witness more complex and blurred business relationships between bloggers/publisher and advertisers.

So what’s the problem? Trust.

We all want to see our favorite bloggers find a way to earn a living from their content. And, as I said, many of these bloggers are putting the requisite disclosure in their promotional posts.

Yet … even though I know they are disclosing relationships, I suddenly find myself skeptical of any mention of a product on those blogs, especially if there’s a link to the product site. Now that I know these bloggers are earning money by promoting businesses through their content, I can’t help but be suspicious of any blog post that turns into an advertisement.

I expect I’m not alone.

Consumers avoid ads.  There’s no reason to believe they won’t be able to see through native advertising on blogs and avoid these blogs, too.

So, given that advertisers will jump on and drive the native/sponsored content wave, and that consumers will inevitably see through the trickery, what does it mean for the long-term future of native advertising and sponsored content? I can see several possibilities:

  • Native/sponsored content becomes less effective. That’s pretty much a given. As consumers become familiar with the new native advertising territory, they will be less likely to click on the content (except perhaps for content like Buzzfeed’s that is purely entertainment with branding).
  • Consumers abandon bloggers/publishers that are clearly being paid. Bloggers/publishers invest in building a following, which is what enables them to monetize. Yet, it’s the regular readers who will most easily spot the monetary influence. (A first-time visitor to a site may not as easily distinguish paid versus unpaid content, when advertisers and publishers are working hard to hide it.) As the regular readers become less trustful of the blogger/publisher because money is now clearly in the picture, they may abandon the site. That would create a real Catch-22 for bloggers who become successful by building a following, but need to make a living from their blog.
  • Smaller and independent bloggers/publishers are favored by readers. Readers will probably begin to show a preference for smaller bloggers and publishers who are keeping it clean. Similarly, business blogs (sites that are creating content solely for the purpose of promoting their own business and not taking money from other businesses) may be considered better sources of information.  Sure, they have a bias, but they have only one bias (promoting their business) and it’s easy for a reader to account for.
  • People become more willing to pay for content. With the increased gaming of review sites and an increased mistrust of “free” content, users may prefer to pay for content from journalist and analysts. Especially when researching large purchases.
  • Google works against native advertisers. How is Google making money on native advertising on publisher sites? They’re not.  Native advertising is an alternative to AdWords, and currently it’s mostly a direct publisher-to-advertiser play. Anything that threatens Google’s ad revenue is likely to become a target for Google. Given the Panda update which focused on ensuring high-quality content, and the fact that native advertising siphons money from Google, it’s likely that Google will adapt its algorithm to penalize bloggers and publishers using native advertising or sponsored content.  Or, the company may find a way to enable native advertising through its network.

I don’t know exactly where we’ll end up, but I’m sure that native advertising won’t be a panacea for advertisers.  The web is an ecosystem. When a new element, such as a new ad format, is introduced users adapt to it and change their behavior. In this case, the likely change is one of mistrust, which will undermine the native advertising/sponsored content monetization strategy in the long run.

Are you starting to see any of this cropping up in your web reading? What impact is it having on you?

Neicole Crepeau is the Senior Marketing Manager at Vizit Corporation, and blogs at Coherent Social Media. She’s the creator of CurateXpress, a content curation tool. Connect with Neicole on Twitter at @neicolec 

Illustration courtesy BigStock,com

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