Native Advertising has a trust issue, but the problem isn’t the format

Isabelle Dunn, Chief Digital Officer, Hearts & Science
By Isabelle Dunn, Chief Digital Officer, Hearts & Science | 26 November 2019

Picture this. You’ve jumped online and an article about some great new spots for dinner catches your eye. You start reading it, only to discover it’s a sponsored piece from a credit card company. 

How do you feel now that you know you’re reading an ad? If it was informative enough, you might not mind. However, if you felt like you just wasted your time, you might be angry. Disappointed. Betrayed even.

This is Native advertising. Advertising that takes on the form and function of the platform it appears on to reach larger audiences. In simple terms, it’s paid content in disguise, published on third party websites. Today, it most often appears on news and lifestyle sites as content recommendation ads or in-feed.

Some might see it as value adding unobtrusive advertising. Others might see it as deceptive.

So, here’s the big question. How can we use Native advertising to its full advantage, without being seen to deceive the very people we’re trying to sell to?

Firstly, let’s think about the format. Digital is interactive, immersive. The audience doesn’t sit passively; they step right into the digital space with a task in mind. So, without a purpose to your content, you risk your message missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big believer in sponsored and branded content – it has huge potential. However, the challenge is not the format, but the way its executed.

Native has become more mainstream and commercial, but it’s also plateaued over the past 2-3 years. This is because if it’s finished poorly, it misleads users with tricksy clickbait headlines – headlines that exist purely for metrics without informing a user what’s in it for them. And all credit to users, they’re becoming savvier and more distrusting of brands who do this.

According to a recent study by Outbrain, 28% of respondents report having clicked on Native advertising in the last 6 months with only 22% trusting what they read.

To help claw back control, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Australia (IAB Australia) jointly launched best practice principles for Native Advertising in November 2015. While it’s a step in the right direction, is it enough? 

For advertisers, sponsored content can still lead to engagement and results in the short term, but they won’t be sustainable in the long term unless backed up by a robust strategy. And it certainly won’t unleash its full potential of driving brand consideration, brand affinity and purchase intent at scale – unless it is executed with excellence.

So, what makes good Native advertising?

Whether native content is used for performance activity or content distribution, it should always follow 3 key principles:

  1. Start with a sound and robust content strategy. Does it take a promotional or informative direction? Can you adapt the advertising to suit each platform and its context?
  2. Put the audience first. Does it deliver enough value that the reader engages voluntarily, even though they’re aware it is coming from a brand?
  3. Be transparent. Understand disclosure guidelines and benefits to avoid a negative backlash.

All that said, it’s not an easy task.

The Native Advertising ecosystem is deeply complex – with advertisers, media agencies, vendors, publishers and consumers all thrown into the mix. Vendors typically don’t control the user experience, or the content users click through to – which can lead to a lack of ownership and strategic alignment.

We believe it’s the role of agencies to take the lead and orchestrate a collective effort to improve the consumer user experience, which will in turn benefit suppliers, advertisers and publishers alike. This will ensure complete sustainability and growth of the sector.

With easy access to new tools to gain live insights into what people are searching for and content gaps in market, we are in a great to position to step it up. If creating high value content fast and cost efficiently has been be a challenge for our clients in the past, there are new solutions, such as Fabulate, who can help connect brands and content creators to deploy quality content effortlessly.

Clearly, programmatic offers huge benefits, including scale and ease of execution. That’s why it’s seeing a strong uptake, with up to 23% of native ads now being traded programmatically. However, the risk is to lose track of context/environment.

At its core, Native advertising needs to display a brand message which resonates and interests a reader, served on the right platform, at the right time. When it's done well and makes sense for the brand, publisher and reader, Native advertising can be a win for the brand and a chance to spread awareness of the product or company.

Isabelle Dunn is Chief Digital Officer, Hearts & Science, Australia

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