Native Ad Transparency – Are We Clear?

Last week, Yahoo launched Yahoo Style, the latest addition to its stable of digital magazines that includes publications on food, movies, and tech. The new site offers brands access to Splash Ads, image-rich ad placements that resemble its fashion-specific editorial content.

Native by definition, the ads are well-executed by virtue of being seamlessly integrated into the page. But are they easily identifiable as native ads? There’s a sponsored label, and a logo, though in some cases – as with an ad for Old Navy – it’s subtle. And the ad copy? That’s sometimes more akin to a fashion news story lede than a paid ad.

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Yahoo’s Splash Ads highlight an issue that’s been top of mind of late, particularly as native advertising continues to dominate digital marketing news. More often than not, discussions about native advertising focus on transparency. What’s the best way to disclose that a post is in fact sponsored? Are native ads misleading to consumers? Are publishers doing a good job of delineating their paid content, or has the line between advertising and editorial become blurred beyond recognition?

Most publishers take a similar approach to the way they treat native ads. Whether they take the form of branded articles, in-feed posts, or integrated content boxes, the placements are usually labeled with the word “sponsored.” But that label assumes consumers knows what “sponsored” means. In order for that caveat to serve its purpose, the reader would need to understand not just that “sponsored” is synonymous with paid advertising, but that the paid advertising can take the form of a news article that looks just like all the others.

This is an assumption our industry can’t yet make. In content marketing agency Contently’s recent native ad survey, consumers were definitely hazy on what constitutes a sponsored post. When the company asked them what a “sponsored content” label means, 48 percent said that a sponsor “paid for and influenced the article.” Twenty percent thought it meant the news site wrote the post, but that it was funded by a brand. Nearly as many respondents (18 percent) thought it meant a sponsor “paid for its name to appear next to existing content like a banner ad.” And 12 percent believed the label meant a sponsor had written the article.

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Take a spin around the Web and you can see why consumers are confused. At Digg, both site and email native ads are marked only by the word “sponsored,” but the type is pale. The placements read like the site’s objectively curated content, from their titles to the brief story descriptions Digg includes with all of its posts.

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Native ads on The Most, a new publication from The Washington Post that collects and redistributes popular content, feature a logo along with the label, and link directly to the advertiser’s brand site. Here, the “sponsored by” designation isn’t indicative of editorial-like content at all, but qualifies what’s in essence a home page banner in disguise.

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Yahoo Movies also includes a brand logo in native placements sourced from Yahoo-owned Tumblr, along with both a “sponsored” tag and the same dollar sign Tumblr uses to identify all of its sponsored posts. With titles like “Matthew Dear & The Sounds of GE,” native ads on this digital magazine are among the easiest for users to decode.

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Native advertising kingpin BuzzFeed‘s paid posts are also slightly harder to miss, but the label on BuzzFeed‘s “story unit” – the promo placement that runs on the home page and throughout the site – varies from the branded story proper. The former is marked “promoted by” and includes a brand logo, while the label is replaced with “Brand Publisher” on the article page. Article pages, which BuzzFeed calls “custom social posts,” can also include the advertising brand’s Facebook and Twitter feeds in the sidebar widget, which further tips off consumers to the true nature of the content.

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We can’t blame publishers for these inconsistencies, nor can we blame Contently’s survey respondents for being all over the map. Native advertising in its current form is experimental. New data on best practices emerges all the time. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) in its Native Advertising Playbook states that when labeling is done right, “a reasonable consumer should be able to distinguish between what is paid advertising vs. what is publisher editorial content.” It advises publishers and brands to make labels “large and visible enough for a consumer to notice,” and use language that “conveys that the advertising has been paid for.” But given the variety of native ad placements, site layouts, and devices on which the content is being viewed, determining how paid content is disclosed is a necessarily made-to-measure process.

And maybe that’s OK. At its core, native advertising is about relevance. It’s about delivering something that’s contextually appropriate for the site page. Right now, consumers are wary of ads that don’t look like ads because they’re being told to be. That will change.

If advertisers and publishers continue to create interesting, relevant, high-quality content, consumers aren’t likely to reject it simply because it’s marked “sponsored.” In the meantime, it’s up to the publisher to know what its audience will tolerate, and to the brand to understand how consumers will respond to its branded content.

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