Can Readers Tell the Difference Between an Article and a Native Advert?

According to Lucy Küng, research associate at the Reuters Institute in Oxford and author of ‘Innovators In Digital News’, ‘leading digital news providers are embracing native advertising’.

Her publication draws on her own research to investigate how the global news industry approach digital news. In a further article for ‘The Media Briefing’, looking specifically at the shift away from traditional advertising towards native, she explains why is it happening, and raises some important concerns for journalists.

The why is pretty straightforward; publishers rely on advertising revenue, but banners and pop ups don’t work well on a mobile screen and readers, overwhelmed by advertising, have learned to turn away from it or to block it with software. Native advertising is designed to slip through the nets we put up, and into a reader’s attention stream by looking and feeling like a part of the publication in which they appear.

At this point, journalistic alarm bells start ringing; Lucy Küng says;

It punctures the Chinese wall between editorial and commercial activities, and if done clumsily can damage credibility with audiences.

She isn’t alone in noticing this, or in being concerned about it. Joe Lazauskas at Contently reports that BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic are investing heavily in creating and publishing articles on behalf of brands. In a recent survey, he made some alarming findings;

On nearly every publication we tested, consumers tend to identify native advertising as an article, not an advertisement. Consumers often have a difficult time identifying the brand associated with a piece of native advertising, but it varies greatly, from as low as 63 percent (on The Onion) to as high as 88 percent (on Forbes). Consumers who read native ads that they identified as high quality reported a significantly higher level of trust for the sponsoring brand. 62 percent of respondents think a news site loses credibility when it publishes native ads. In a separate study we conducted a year ago, 59 percent of respondents said the same. 48 percent have felt deceived upon realizing a piece of content was sponsored by a brand—a 15 percent decrease from last year’s survey.

But Küng gives native advertising some interesting context;

While the term ‘native advertising’ is fashionable now, sponsored content is a well established phenomenon, and doesn’t correlate automatically with trickery and poor quality. The soap opera started life as sponsored content. More recently, Felix Baumgartner’s freefall from the ‘edge of space’ in 2014, which had the largest number of concurrent live streams in YouTube’s history to date (8 million), was a piece of high value, high investment sponsored content - from Red Bull. The September issue of Vogue is renown for the high number of ad pages it carries (631 pages in 2014). These are clearly advertising, but also clearly of value to audiences. They function not as a deterrent, but indeed as an inducement to purchase.

So if native advertising is an established part of a publisher’s toolkit, what does she think can be done to maintain journalistic standards whilst maintaining a profit? In her conclusion she sets out 3 critical takeaways from her research;

In the field of native, transparency is all - native has to be really clearly labelled as such. If not, audiences can feel cheated and both media company and advertiser can be damaged (as The Atlantic’s historic misstep, an advertorial for the Church of Scientology in 2013, showed). Native and editorial content generation should ideally be run as separate operations. At minimum there need to be robust walls between commercial and editorial operations. These areas need to communicate and at times collaborate, but suggestions that stories are being tailored (or even pulled) in the interests of advertisers will damage editorial credibility. The quality of the sponsored content needs to be high and match the style of the ‘host’ content. And while you muse on this, check out ‘Which David Bowie are you’ – BuzzFeed sponsored content for Spotify.