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Recommended for you? Don’t bet on it: the ‘native’ ad invasion

Native ad publishers such as Taboola use attention-seeking photos to attract readers. Patrick Howe

In the endless drive to get people’s attention, advertising is going ‘native’, creeping in to places formerly reserved for editorial content. In this Native Advertising series we find out what it looks like, if readers can tell the difference, and more importantly, whether they care.

From its very name to its sober headlines and public affairs-minded stories, the Christian Science Monitor’s website seems hand built to communicate credibility.

So what, a visitor might wonder, is up with those “other” stories on the site, such as the one with a picture of a shirtless Sylvester Stallone that asks: “Who knew these male mega stars were so small?”

Those “stories” are paid for, examples of an increasingly popular genre of marketing called native advertising. The Monitor at least included an easy-to-miss hyperlink near the Stallone pic that read “About these ads”.

Most publishers don’t bother disclosing the links as ads at all, or employ a variety of euphemisms such as “recommended for you,” “from around the web,” “sponsored by,” “presented by,” “branded by” or “sponsor content.” The Wall Street Journal’s version only includes a question mark as a clue.

Regardless, native advertising is growing. The overall numbers depend on definitions, but looking only at native ads placed in social media, the category surged 77% in 2013 to US$2.4 billion and is predicted to double by 2017, according to analyst firm BIA/Kelsey. Government regulators, such as the US Federal Trade Commission, are also taking notice.

But do readers mind them? So far, they don’t seem to.

Research I conducted with Brady Teufel looked at whether the existence of one type of native ad — the type that presents an ad in the auspice of a home-grown slideshow — had any effect on people’s perception of a news site’s credibility. It did not, although we found people were less likely to have noticed the native version as an ad when compared to a traditional display ad.

And native ads seem so far to be working for advertisers. A recent industry survey found that people looked at native ads 53% more often than traditional display ads. A article written by Chartbeat’s CEO reports they aren’t competitive with actual content. Only about a quarter of readers scroll at all on a page once they click onto a “native” piece. That compares to 71% who scroll on an actual article.

Spotting the ads

Native ads come in a many varieties. The Interactive Advertising Bureau recently recognised several distinct categories, including:

In-feed ads, which appear within a Facebook feed or Twitter stream.

Paid search ads, the initial returns from a search engine query. These are paid for by sponsors who buy claims on certain keywords.

Recommendation widgets. These include those labeled “From around the Web,” or “recommended for you.” Two large corporate players are Taboola and Outbrain.

Custom ads, usually created by in-house ad teams and designed to mimic the tone and look of content. These are the type of native ads being used at New York TImes, The Atlantic, and BuzzFeed.

Underlying the trend is a desperate quest by publishers to make their online operations pay. Most publications with print versions make vastly more money —10 or 20 times as much — from their print ads as from the ads in their digital versions. This has remained true even as print sales have declined.

Despite the advent of digital advertising, print advertising remains king. hugovk/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The print advertising model is effective in other ways as well. Some research shows people actually appreciate print advertisements, considering them informative and interesting in much the same way as editorial content. Consider the Sunday newspaper; it’s picked up largely because of the ads.

That’s the magic publishers have said they hope to accomplish with native ads — that they’ll be both more liked and more profitable than banner, or display, ads, which many have grown increasingly unhappy with.

Display ads are placed by services such as Google’s DoubleClick and they pay poorly, perhaps US$1,500 for a million page views. That figure has fallen and is likely to keep falling as a limited number of ads chase an ever-growing number of web pages.

Beware the backlash

But plenty of controversy has erupted with the move to native. Many critics are concerned about a blurring of the lines between editorial and advertising content. In 2013, after a swift social media backlash, The Atlantic had to pull a native piece praising the Church of Scientology. “We screwed up,” editors wrote, pledging to be more transparent.

There’s also increasing worry that these ugly, seedy or just plain weird “stories” will erode hard-earned brand credibility.

On a page recently, under the label “Content from the Web,” I found the following Taboola stories, each accompanied by their own cleavage-revealing or otherwise attention-seeking pictures: “Drinking Vinegar: The Alcohol Alternative,” “The Most Hilarious Drunk Texts Ever!” and “Childish Gambino Live In Alabama On the Beach.” Huh?

So is this the future? News sites have a poor history of making good choices with their online content. At conferences, publishers bemoan their dependence on blinking, low-paying display ads. If native advertising leads to both better ads and better profits, it could be good news for an industry that needs some. But if the trend leads to trashier ads and confused readers, it could well be another costly misstep.

This is the second piece in our Native Advertising series. Read the others here:

Tired of pop-up ads? The ‘native’ alternative could be worse

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