Ads vs. Content – What Consumers Don’t Know and What This Means for Brands

U.K.-based usability consultancy Bunnyfoot recently released the results of a study on consumers and search. Bunnyfoot’s survey of Internet users found that 41 percent were unaware that the listings above Google’s organic search results are paid ads. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed routinely clicked on the paid listings, while only 19 percent clicked on the organic results.

This data is surprising – shocking, even – in that it’s both new and familiar. If you were to go back to 2003 you’d find an eerily similar scene. It was around this time that search marketing really began to gain traction. Brands saw search ads as the “silver bullet” they had been waiting for: a way to make their messaging look and feel more natural, and give it relevance by tying it to the keywords consumers actively searched. But consumers were uncertain about what they were seeing, so much so that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) intervened.

The FTC required sites to clearly label listings that were paid. They did, but consumer watchdog groups still had concerns. “We think it’s very important that the FTC keep close watch on the search engines to ensure that they are not deceiving the American public by failing to disclose that ads are ads,” a Commercial Alert spokesperson said at the time. “As search engines grow in importance, it’s ever more important if search engines are being hijacked by commercial advertisers that the public know it.”

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Today, 10 years later, this same battle between promotional content and informational objectivity is playing out through branded content. Just as search was hailed as a cure-all for banner blindness, so too is native advertising like site section sponsorships and content integration. EMarketer reports that U.S. spending on native advertising will nearly double by 2017, and native ad platform Sharethrough found almost half of agency executives consider native video ads to be more effective than conventional ads. Recognizing both its growing popularity and its likelihood of provoking debate, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is stepping in with a Native Advertising Task Force intended to steer marketers right.

Let’s not forget about social networks, which Forrester Consulting says 56 percent of advertisers have bought into this year. Many paid forms of social media look like genuine content, and this puts social squarely in the middle of the ad-vs.-authenticity debate. A few months ago social and mobile ad platform MediaBrix asked consumers which forms of advertising they considered to be “misleading.” Eighty-six percent named sponsored video ads, 66 percent said advertorials, 57 percent said Facebook Sponsored Stories, and 45 percent said Twitter Promoted Tweets.

Do you see the trend? Brands keep looking for the best way to present their ads to consumers, but ads that look like ads and those that are happily tolerated by the viewer are often mutually exclusive. When consumers voice their distaste of digital advertising it’s banners they’re referring to, bar none. Marketers, in their effort to make potential customers happy, are creating ads that look so little like the ads consumers have come to know that they’re completely unrecognizable.

A sizeable percentage of regular Internet users will become accustomed to these practices over time. But as Bunnyfoot’s research on search behavior shows, a good many others won’t. There will always be a contingent of consumers that misconstrues what it’s seeing, and this is a big problem for brands. Consumers don’t like to feel duped, and when they do, it’s the advertiser that has to bear the brunt of the blame. Finding the perfect balance between advertising and content can feel like an impossible cycle, a digital form of Sisyphus labor. No matter how hard brands persist, they just can’t seem to get ahead.

Marketers were right when they predicted that paid search ads would serve them well. They’re right about branded content, too. What we all have to keep in mind, though, is that each of these channels can be taken to extremes. Tone down your ads, integrate them into the page content, but make absolutely sure that no one – not greenhorns or savvy Millennials – could mistake them for something that they’re not.

Integrated advertising is the future of digital media. It’s also the past. If we’ve learned anything from the last 10 years, it’s that we have to be more transparent with our efforts – especially when we know they’re likely to work.

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