The many forms of native advertising

Last night, two posts on Re/code caught my attention. Both talked about advertising. In the first, Re/code introduced a new form of advertising on its site, their version of native advertising. Native advertising on Re/code will be in the form of a regular post with a few differences: “we [will] clearly label them “Sponsor Content” with a blue label instead of our usual black one. We also use the company logo next to the writer’s byline, and, at the bottom of each such post, include a disclosure statement saying that the article is a form of advertising, and was neither written by, nor edited by, our journalists.”

The second post was an analysis of the future of the New York Times’ subscription model. The future is grim but the Times is trying many different subscription models with dedicated apps, unbundling and different price points for different content levels. Commenters also pointed out that the Times is an innovator in this space, putting up paywalls and trying out new subscription models way before its competitors.

My takeaways from these two different posts are:

  1. To survive, a digital media organization has two options to monetize its content: advertising and subscriptions.
  2. Both are hard to implement successfully over time. What was once a successful subscription model grows weak when the demand curve has been met and there is no subscriber growth. Ads that looked attractive on the right sidebar because they were somewhat targeted stop being effective as readers tune them out.

Conclusion: there’s a constant need to innovate on this front in order to stay alive. There’s no resting on one’s laurels.

So back to native advertising. Native advertising is a step up on the aggressiveness ladder for media sites. More “in-your-face” and harder to avoid. Also, despite how some of the “better’ (i.e. more transparent) companies label them, native advertising is more deceptive. It is an ad dressed up to look like “regular” content in order to, let’s face it, trick the user into engaging. The benefit for the publisher and the advertiser is obvious: more engagement than other advertising models. But for the user it really depends on the implementation to define the level of irritation.

Native ad for a Pumpkin Spice Latte. Yes, I see the relevance.

Native ad for a Pumpkin Spice Latte by Starbucks. Yes, I see the relevance.

The best implementation of native advertising I’ve seen is Twitter’s. Maybe it’s because I understand that they had no other choice but placing ads directly in the timeline, I am willing to accept sponsored tweets and sponsored trending topics. In the app, Twitter has practically no other viable location to place ads except in the timeline. Also, they have done it well in that they are very clearly labeled, don’t interfere too often, and do have some relevance for me. There is a sense of over-repetitiveness (I am seeing Android Wear ads extremely often!) but I’m sure the algorithm is being tweaked constantly. But again, as a user of a free product, I understand the need for advertising and appreciate how Twitter has chosen to implement it.

Women Inmates: looks like editorial, talks like editorial... it must be editorial!

Women Inmates: looks like editorial, talks like editorial… it must be editorial!

The worst I have seen is the New York Times’ now infamous Women Inmates article sponsored by Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, you know, a show about women inmates. It was only when someone pointed out the sponsorship that I noticed it. The graphics, the format, the placement within the Times, and even the decent content made me think it was editorial. As a paying subscriber of the New York Times, I don’t appreciate being deceived.

So, with these two examples, these are the parameters to consider for native ads:

  • Labeling, most important of all. How clearly is the ad/content differentiated?
  • Location and placement; in the flow or beside?
  • Occurrence: how repetitive are the ads? How often do you see one when compared to real content?
  • Relevance: how relevant are the ads to the user?

In a world of free content the rise of native advertising is inevitable. Do it well and you will retain your user’s and increase advertising revenue. Do it badly and you’ll lose angry users. And above all, don’t deceive your users, it usually doesn’t end well.



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