In September 2011, venture capitalist Fred Wilson coined the term “native monetisation” in a presentation he gave at New York Advertising Week. Now, five years later, publishers in the UK and around the world have fully embraced the concept of native advertising and taken to blending in advertiser-paid content with editorial pieces on their platform. At the same time, allowing brands to transfer their content marketing endeavours from their own channels to that of media owners is a challenge for publishers, in particular when it comes to adequately drawing the literal line between paid for content and independent editorial: Recent studies by industry bodies and native advertising service providers paint a picture of native advertising in a state of labelling disarray.
No stopping Native Advertising
No doubt, the figures are promising: A recent Yahoo/Enders study, for example, predicts that by 2020, native ads will account for 52% of all display media bought across Europe, with native ad spend reaching €13.2 billion across the whole region and £2.8 billion in the UK alone (from £1.2 billion in 2015). At the same time, various findings pinpoint issues around how to label advertiser-sponsored content in such a way that native advertising doesn’t harm one’s media brand on the one hand while still delivering the goods for advertisers on the other.
The state of labelling
In June this year, the FIPP released the results of a research study among 140 magazine executives in 39 countries, conducted in collaboration with the Native Advertising Institute. According to this survey, 11% of publishers do not label native advertising at all (bad enough) and 24% do so “by using a different look and feel”. This effectively means that more than one third do not work with any kind of clear disclaimer such as “sponsored content” or “advertisement”. Because, let’s be honest, a “different look and feel”, i.e. different font, a bit of shading or similar, is not really explicit enough. The reader may notice that there’s something different, but will they realise why and that an advertiser has paid for this particular content unit? Not likely, in my view. Another recent report, The State of Native Disclosure, which was released by native ad platform developer Polar in August, found that only about two-thirds of the native ad placements that had been analysed for the study comply with the guidelines for native ad disclosure released by the US Federal Trade Commission in December 2015. 33% of native ads on publisher sites across North America and Europe lacked any designation whatsoever.
These results are somewhat staggering, considering that it has been accepted from the start by all parties involved that clear labelling is vital for native advertising/sponsored content/brand content to work on media platforms. And in the aforementioned FIPP study, 29% of publishers actually also cite poor labelling as a one of the biggest threats to native advertising. So, why is the industry constantly getting itself into a twist over how to make sure that users are not misled about sponsored content?
At the heart of this lies the ultimate dilemma of native advertising: On the one hand, blending in with independent editorial content by imitating its format and function is the major appeal of native advertising. It’s what made it gain such traction in the first place and be enthusiastically adopted by publishers that are faced with users who’ve well and truly had it with intrusive, irrelevant banner ads and thus, resorted to installing ad blockers. On the other hand, if the involvement of a brand who has paid for an editorial-style piece of writing (or video) cannot be identified by the user, then what’s the point of paying for it? And why risk potentially alienating users? Because once they find out (too late) about the commercial nature of the article they’ve clicked on, they are bound to feel tricked into reading something they thought was a piece of editorial produced by an independent journalist.
Why hiding native advertising is not a good strategy
Trying to hide native advertising is never a good idea and defies the very purpose of it. Sponsored content executed well, such as the New York Times’s paid post for the Netflix programme “Orange is the New Black” (created by the papers own T Brand Studio), serves everyone involved and the brands paying should have an interest in a clear label indicating their commercial involvement: By its raw definition, native advertising provides readers with good, well-written (well-produced) and useful or entertaining content, depending on the publication and context, and advertisers who associate their name with it benefit from increased (social) engagement. Native advertising is not about the blatant flogging of a product or service, we all know that (or should, at least), it is merely a particular and increasingly important instrument in the marketing mix of advertisers and brands that contributes to building and fostering relationships. Relationships that will, ideally, ultimately be converted into some kind of a transaction.
Get it wrong and watchdogs will bark
The UK Advertising Standards Association (ASA) has in recent months pointed the finger at culprits for not marking paid for brand content clearly. BuzzFeed, a sponsored content pioneer, was one of them, and the other, one of the country’s major newspapers: The Daily Telegraph was reprimanded for not adequately labelling an online advertorial for Michelin tyres that consisted of text and a video. In the eyes of the ASA, the label used, “in association with Michelin”, was misleading and not sufficient to make clear that the featured content had been paid for. The Daily Telegraph, naturally, begged to differ.
While the association demanded that further ads be made clearly identifiable as paid for with labelling other than “sponsored” or “in association with”, it did not say what should be used instead. A comment by Brinsley Dresden, Head of Advertising Law at law firm Lewis Silkin, on campaignlive.co.uk suggests that the ASA will only accept phrases such as “advertisement feature” as sufficient disclosure for native ads and describing its latest decisions as worrying for native advertising. He calls for a measured assessment that considers the type of medium in question that carries a particular piece of marketing communication, saying:
“(…), there is a contrast between BuzzFeed, which is a commercial platform that carries a significant proportion of advertorial content, and online versions of traditional media. (…)”
In its Digital News Report 2015, based on YouGov research in the UK and USA, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford highlights a related point and draws attention to the difference in perception that reader groups have: While older users are more sensitive, younger consumers are more open to native advertising and less likely to feel “deceived” by it. They have grown up with platforms such as BuzzFeed, where native advertising is more prevalent and established than on the sites of traditional media. However, the report also stresses that
“consumers want to see clear labelling and signposting of paid-for content. Readers don’t like to feel they are being deceived; however, if they know up-front that a brand may have influenced the content, consumers are more accepting. To help maintain levels of trust, the language used should be standardised across news sites as much as possible.”
Publishers, be bold
While I doubt that the industry’s variety and range will allow complete standardisation, the case for labelling is very clear: Unequivocal labelling is a must in order not to risk blurring the lines between advertising and editorial and thus credibility. After all, advertisers buy into the standing a medium has with its readers. Five years after the “birth” of native as a new media buzzword it is now paramount for publishers to come up with solutions that really work for their particular medium and not give in to sloppiness. Labelling native advertising should, in fact, not be a cause for confusion and an area where the industry gets it wrong because if publishers as well as advertisers really believe in the value of this format – and all the figures suggest they do – then they need to stand by it and be very upfront about what they’re doing. If they don’t, they ultimately display low confidence in the quality of the native content provided on the site. So, instead of fiddling with the labelling, upping the quality ante might be a much better way of securing long-term success.
The case for labelling
Native advertising is a compelling proposition for the media industry and one that demands high quality standards in the interest of users which is the one vital interest that should ultimately be at the heart of any media company. Since native advertising presents the industry with a chance to create better, more engaging, more creative and more useful advertising for consumers, it should be executed in the best possible way while considering all the requirements of good practice in journalism and publishing. More than ever, publishers across all verticals are in urgent need of viable options for boosting advertising revenues. The valid chance that sponsored content presents must therefore not be messed up. And, as trivial as this may sound, clear communication has always been the best way of avoiding any confusion.
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