The Native Advertising Trend: Hot or Hoax?

wolf in sheeps clothing

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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  • Great article Neicole on a subject that has been annoying the hell out of me. I’m not going to name anyone but there are several hi-profile bloggers that I really used to respect and now I’m looking at some these former ‘hero’s’ as borderline spammers.

    I appreciate that it’s difficult..they’re just trying to make a living as we all are

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  • Really interesting piece – thank you Neicole. Native advertising strikes me as not being too dissimilar to the advertorial of the print world, a practice which is still visible in many media. I wonder if this reflects as much the desire for advertisers to infiltrate content with their messaging as the fact that bloggers are struggling to make money from their writing as they perhaps did before Panda, Penguin etc? We seem to be living at a time when content/editorial – whatever people want to call it – has never had more value to businesses recognising the power of a third party voice in expressing their message. But it’s also a time when are media and original content generators appear to be struggling to monetise their efforts. Bit of a catch 22?

  • Neicole,

    Even bloggers that very transparent with their sponsored posts or native advertising I tend to lose interest in after to long. I know that good blogging practices calls for always adding a call-to-action, I just don’t believe every piece of content needs to have a sales pitch included.

    Even something that fits the tone and feel of the blog, once in a while, I get it. But all the time just feels wrong. Bloggers have to make money, I get it.

    But the native advertising practice is a slippery slope.

    Thanks

    Hanley

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  • Thanks, Hanley and Deborah. Yes, catch-22 is it.

  • Diane K. Rose

    Great analysis, Neicole. As a former print editor who once worked for an organization that had no problem with its sales staff promising undisclosed advertorials to gain an advertiser, I know firsthand how such a practice impacts the integrity of writing. Now any whiff I get of tainted content – disclosed or undisclosed – makes me suspicious of everything else I might read/hear/see on a website. Back in the day, losing one reader’s trust was not disastrous. Today the scenario is different with potential for a social media firestorm and credibility nightmare is just one click away. Native advertising is a risk that writers and publishers and organizations simply must not take if they truly care about protecting their reputations (or their personal ethics).

  • I really have very mixed feelings. I want bloggers to be able to monetize. Blogs provide so much valuable content–but it’s a lot of work and it’s not fair to ask that people do it just for the love of it. At the same time, we need a way to make money that doesn’t require bloggers to compromise their content or have the appearance of doing so. We just haven’t found it, yet.

  • Great post. I appreciate your help understanding the context in which we as bloggers are being pitched to advertise. I have my own experience and I handled it thusly.

    I was approached by a marketer for a company that coincidentally I was already a customer of. They wanted to pay me for a guest post. I offered to write a genuine post because I actually had planned to blog on the topic. But then I asked myself why would I write a glowing advertisement for this vendor without some compensation. Ironically, the marketer who approached me would be handsomely rewarded for finding me, but I would be doing the work and adding the value.

    My compromise was to seek compensation for my time associated with crafting the piece. For me this was fair because my opinion wasn’t being bought (I was a satisfied customer already) but my time was.

    My piece is here, complete with a disclaimer of the compensation.

    http://homemadedad.ca/cord-blood-storage-answers-a-question-you-never-want-to-be-asked-as-a-parent/

    Would be interested in any feedback. Thanks.

  • Thanks, Diane. Seems clear from your experience that the practice and issues are not so new, huh?

  • Lori Witzel

    Hi Neicole! Agreed. People need to put food on the table.

    Maybe the path to monetization looks like this (a “content monetization funnel” if you will):
    tweets/extreme short form (free) > blogging/intros to articles/medium form (registration requested, free) > full articles/research/videos (registration required, very small subscription fee) > books, training, consulting (paid)

    What do you and Grow readers think?

  • Hey, I’ve got boy-girl twins, too! Lovely pictures! Well, you gave more than fair disclosure and the post certainly shows that this was a one-time thing for you. So, I doubt you lost your readers’ trust over that. It seemed very above board. If getting paid for your time was a regular practice, unfortunately I still think it would cause readers to wonder if you weren’t biased. After all, companies aren’t going to keep paying for your time if the posts were frequently negative. So, in the larger picture of how bloggers make money, I’m not sure that would be the solution. But I think you handled this instance well.

  • Agree Lori. I think the least icky route to monetization is “indirect.” You build a voice of authority and then sell other products, consulting or whatever. That is what i am trusting in any way. I give away everything, keep it real and fight to keep the spammers OUT.

  • michaelbrenner

    Neicole, great article and thanks for the thoughtful discussion on the ethics of all this. Native advertising, like much of content marketing is nothing new. But the context has changed as publishers are seeking newer ways to monetize.

    I personally believe that clearly labeled sponsored content on a news site like my own Business 2 Community or on sites like Mashable and Business Insider is fine. I find it kind of icky on a personal bloggers site. I don’t allow it on my own personal blog because I think it would erode the trust I’ve built with my audience.

    And I agree with you it is not a panacea but should be tested into the mix for advertisers. In the end, it will come down to the value of the “sponsored” content and if it is delivered in the right context.

    Great job!

    Michael @BrennerMichael

  • jennwhinnem

    Thanks Neicole. This is much clearer to me now.

    Reading this piece, what struck me is, pardon the caps, HOW MUCH PEOPLE HATE ADVERTISING especially on the web. It’s in the comments too. One person described native advertising as “tainted” content (and I’m not necessarily disagreeing, just quoting).

    I’D be interested in hearing from the {grow} community if, outside of the Super Bowl, people ever LIKE ads? Or ever think “gee I’m so glad I saw that ad.” I’m thinking unless it offers some kind of deal, the answer is “no.” I think people like entertaining ads. I, for one, loved the Darth Vader kid ad. But did it make me buy a Passat? Nope. So how, exactly, are ads ever effective at doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to SELL.

    All of this just makes me wonder why anyone spends money on advertising.

  • I am seeing it crop up a lot lately. The big problem though is that no one seems to really agree on a single definition of what it is. And marketers don’t seem to know what it is and if they do profess to know the definition — they sure can’t agree on it upon being asked to provide one per this study: http://goo.gl/VxRS6

    So right now, me thinks it’s just a buzzword that is trending, so bloggers everywhere will jump on it and try and leverage it to drive traffic to their blogs.

  • Good post, Neicole. “Native advertising” reminds of the old “advertorial” concept in print media—what appeared to be an article with a very small and faint “advertisement” printed at the top or bottom of the ad. To me native, advertising is the same thing. You’re right, it’s gaining in popularity, but when you consider what some of the commenters mention, native advertising can erode trust. Are influential bloggers and brands willing to compromise trust… once considered the “currency of the digital world?”

    As the push for more content grows, so too does the volume of less-than-quality content. Speaking as a B2B copywriter whose been asked to write “cheap content,” (and refused), I agree that people may become more willing to pay for content that’s well-written and provides unique insights. Take a look at some of the larger publications such as WSJ, and you’ll see that they’re charging for some of their content. I’ve been seeing more of this in the tech world. Perhaps the “monetization funnel” that Lori mentioned is the way to go. The folks at Forrester do a good job at providing short teasers, free 500-word informative insights via analyst blog posts, and then, of course, their in-depth paid reports.

  • That’s the path that a lot of bloggers take. But not all blogs/topics lend themselves to that model. I’ve read a lot about fashion bloggers, for instance, and I’m not sure that model works for them.

  • Absolutely. There is certainly content people are still willing to pay for. Of course, the examples you cite are very large organizations. I sure would love it if we could just get paid directly by readers. Not sure if/when that will ever happen for us smaller bloggers.

  • Funny, that. People do report they don’t like ads. Yet, enough people still click on them to power a huge business! They actually do work! I’m the type that skips every ad on TV, myself. But my kids, and even my husband, do watch the funny ones. Progressive and Geico are ones they’ll pause to see, at least the first time. And what about those Old Spice videos? There are new, interactive ads on the xBox that people are actually “using,” too. So, I think it’s possible to do ads that people don’t mind as much and maybe even enjoy. But that’s probably always going to be a subset.

  • That’s makes 2 of us!

  • Neicole,

    I already have stopped reading many blogs that publish a large number of guest posts because the quality isn’t there. I’ve even updated a few of my RSS subscriptions so I’m only subscribed to posts from the primary author.

    The risk is that native advertising does the same thing: it is a door for low quality content to get into normally high quality publications. The publishers that allow this to happen will ultimately struggle.

    The more interesting outcome is publishers that look at native advertising as the ability for brands to become contributing journalists subject to the SAME editorial guidelines and review. This becomes more like a traditional contributed article and, at the extreme, even a remaking of how a publisher sources content from beyond their own staff.

    I think we will see a very broad range of models emerge from publishers (including bloggers). It will be interesting to watch.

  • I like that idea, a lot, Eric. Contributing journalist.

  • I think advertising has its place and always will. People say they don’t like ads but they hate paying for the TV shows and content worse. And besides, it still works.

  • geofflivingston

    I think this will work as well as Google paid search placements do. Same thing, in my book. So a bit of both a hoax, but not a bad tactic…

  • Neicole Crepeau Thanks for continuing to raise awareness of this, which is another gasp of a dying model–interruptive advertising is a 20th century relic–and people just have to let go. Sure, it will continue to be relevant for certain use cases, but it’s deflating like a dirigible with a huge gash in the side. People need to summon their imaginations to think different. Use ads to serve people, not brands. People take care of people and orgs who act in ways that increase trust. Not like native ads, as you point out.

    I love the way Stan Rapp puts it: “Don’t do things TO people, do things WITH them, or, even better, do things FOR them.”[http://tinyurl.com/stanrapp10]. The underlying truth is, the brand has a message that it wants to force on people. Better to transform advertising to serve people (really), not push messages to them. That’s a holdback to print magazines and TV, which carried a leisure context in which people’s time had a relatively low value.

    I’ll go even further: I think ads should be software: imagine them as software, design them as software. It’s different but really simple. More [http://tinyurl.com/mobadflaw]

  • Great post, Neicole – your predictions really articulated some things about the future of native advertising that I’ve been thinking about.

    With your predictions, have you considered that the future of native ads and sponsored content could involve providing value to the consumer? I don’t think ads are necessarily a drain on the audience, but could entertain, educate.

    Imagine a consumer group that looks forward to the advertisements! It’s not that far fetched. People look forward to Super Bowl ads as much as the game itself. I have as much faith in the ability of online writers – they can provide sponsored content that’s engaging, educating, or simply fun enough that readers will want to consume that paid content.

    “The holy grail of advertising is creating a positive relationship between the advertiser, publisher, and end user.” -Francisco Diaz-Mitoma

    I wrote an article recently that goes into more detail, and would love to hear your thoughts – would it be inappropriate to post a link here?

  • jennwhinnem

    Does it still work? That’s not me pushing back, that’s me really wondering. I mean I get it that sometimes people are entertained by the ads, but do they make people buy?

    As I type this I remember Dollar Shave Club. I loved the ad, AND it compelled me to buy. But I bought because the price was good.

    Feel free to point me off to a site/blog post/etc. that answers my questions instead. I completely agree with Mark that if people have to choose between paying for TV/content, they’ll choose the ad…but they’ll complain about it and try to get around it, which leads me to make the tired comment on how the business model for content is broken for the most part.

    At any rate, thank you for the conversation.

  • I read your post.Thanks for pointing me to it. You and I share the same philosophy. I’ve been advocating for what I call Social Offers–win-win scenarios you create as a marketer. I absolutely agree with you that approaching advertising/marketing as a value-add for the user is a new and better way to market. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing native advertising, social media, print–it will all work better if you take a win-win approach. So, I think you are spot on.

  • Replied in wrong place sorry

  • I agree Nick. I think bloggers need to get really creative and entertaining with sponsored content. Advertising -which is what it is, should present the product to the consumer. No need for us to be sceptical. If the piece is entertaining enough then the reader may click thru for more information. Simple. Better than just paraphrasing the press release and adding “my family liked it”.
    Imagine blogger advertising awards like they have with commercial tv?

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  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to tease apart the connections between blogger outreach efforts, and the content that is shared, promoted, etc. We all know the rules of engagement where disclosure is concerned (we all do, right?) and the promise of higher rankings, exposure, etc, is indeed a slippery slope. The issue is related to the developing notion of corporations as media companies, brand journalism, etc. What happens when the consumer starts asking tough questions, and companies flee to the comfort of traditional PR, for example? How do you repair the damage? The best approach is seldom the easy one, and in this case, we need to cal it out, even if some marketers have the best intentions.

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