Even though I’ve worked in online marketing – and specifically with brand content – for more than 15 years, I like to test myself.
The experiment usually takes place at a coffee shop. While calmly sipping my non-fat soy latte, I will peruse one or two dozen articles on well-known media sites. After the fourth or fifth article, I get lost in my reading and the test slowly fades from my mind. Only after two blissful hours of consuming content do I stop to assess the results. The challenge: How easily did I spot the native advertising?
Now, my “spidey sense” for native ads may be more acutely tuned than the average reader’s. And I’ll admit it’s hard to test yourself when you know you’re conducting a test. That said, my awareness generally reflects the level of transparency with which the publisher identifies its sponsored content. The easier I could spot the sponsored label, the better.
But here’s what struck me about these tests: While transparency may have alerted me to the sponsored content, it played only a small role in determining whether or not I read the content.
Transparency is a starting point
Let me explain. I’m not downplaying the importance of transparency. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the need for all publishers and social platforms to accurately label native advertising as sponsored content, brand content, suggested posts and so on – depending on their preference. For perceptive readers, it’s a nice heads-up from the publisher that the content they’re seeing is sponsored, to varying extents, by a brand. It’s also ethical, best practice, and more than ever, scrutinized by the FTC.
But does it get noticed by readers? And by readers, I mean the same general public that skims through content at breakneck speed. I think the answer is probably sometimes. Put another way, often enough to matter. And when it is noticed, I believe readers generally appreciate that it’s there. But it isn’t a deterrent.
Providing valuable content in native advertising satisfies, brands, consumers and publishers.
Adding value for readers
Why? Because in the split second it takes to acknowledge the sponsored content label, the reader has already moved on to weigh the value of the native content – starting with the headline. Is it informative? Interesting? If it’s a native, promoted post in my Facebook news stream, does it recommend something I care enough about to click on? If so, I am happy – and the sponsored label is, at best, an afterthought.
Likewise, if I read a brand-sponsored article on a major daily newspaper website, I assess it not with a bias for or against the brand proximity, but with a more pragmatic litmus test. Is it high quality? Did I learn something? Did the article make me smarter, and more informed?
And this is the power of relevant, compelling content. I’m a marketer, a reader and a consumer, but I don’t wear these hats exclusively. I evaluate content through all three lenses – and more. The commonality is that any persona I represent to a brand will always care about quality.
Another group that intrinsically cares about valuable content is publishers. Their ongoing readership requires it. But publishers also care about revenue. This is what sparked the move to native ads in the first place, after brands demanded better performance from banner ads and their dwindling click-through rates.
Winners and losers
So, who wins and who loses? If native ads are done properly, I believe everyone can win.
All of the ongoing debate around native ads and journalistic integrity is certainly understandable. But consider the players and their motives. Brands will always demand better performance. Publishers will always walk the fine line between credible content and revenue generation. And readers will always want to be informed and entertained. Looking at native ads through the lens of content marketing best practices, the common denominator to solve for all three groups is to provide valuable content.
All three groups win when brands go that extra mile to produce genuinely compelling native ad content. Successful native ads do exist, as highlighted by this Econsultancy article. The challenge, then, is aligning publishers and brands to produce their best work, as native advertising continues to evolve at an ever quicker pace.