Food for thought

Native ads: it’s complicated

By March 28, 2016 No Comments

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Online ads are obtrusive, obnoxious and annoying”

This one sentence summed up the feelings of a majority of the 20,000 participants from 12 countries participating in the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University’s joint research.

I’m pretty sure that if you were asked to share your thoughts on the matter at hand, they wouldn’t be very different. A page that would otherwise load in half a second takes almost ten seconds to load when loaded with banner ads. Moreover, it does no good; the clutter plainly ruins the reading experience.

Imagine reading an intense political article about the conflict in Syria. You’re reading about Bashar al-Assad, chemical weapons, ISIS, human rights violations, and then poof! You’re suddenly looking at something about cheap flight tickets. At that moment when reality hits you, if someone asks you to describe online ads hand-on-heart, what words will you use? I bet “obtrusive, obnoxious and annoying” in all probability or slight variations at the very least.

Online ads are visually loud and distracting. Why? Because, essentially, they are in a place they aren’t meant to be and often act as a hinderance for consumers trying to consume content, which is why people hate them. And if you needed any more proof, here’s an episode from South Park summing it all up:

By now, we have all gotten so used to consuming online content for free that we’ve almost stopped considering how the process of creating this content is funded. For most free content, content creators rely on advertising as their primary source of revenue. But given the annoying nature of online ads, a whopping 200 million monthly users use ad blocking software. How does this matter? In 2015 alone, publishers lost almost $22 billion in online ad revenue, meaning that content creators are now struggling with their finances, thus preventing them from creating awesome content.

Moreover, with ad blockers now in the picture, how are brands to reach their target demographic anymore?

Enter native advertising! ‘Native advertising’ is a term that has picked up pace in recent times, and you must have to be living under a rock to not have come across it yet. In fact, more interesting than the phrase itself are the various loud debates surrounding it.

So what is native advertising? Sharethrough defines it as “a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.” Native can be classified into three broad categories – native style display, sponsorship and social, but in reality these are less of categories and more of stages of evolution.

  • First came the sponsorship model, where independent content creators were paid by brands to create content specifically meant to promote their products.
  • Social media platforms gave the sponsorship model their very own twist, thus coming up with their own unique form of native advertising within their own platforms where brands could connect and engage with their audience on the basis of their network and preferences.
  • The final stage of evolution (yet), native-style display ads, are ones where the advert is consciously designed in such a way that its look and feel matches that of the content.

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The problem child in this happy family is the sponsorship-based model. When it was first discovered and implemented, the sponsorship model seemed to be like a golden egg laying goose for publishers and advertisers. Advertisers have always wanted to inject themselves into content, but content creators have held on to the “Church and state” rule, upholding the boundary between the two.

With the sponsorship model, the line separating the two no longer exists as advertisers pay the publishers to create content catering specifically to their needs. As the advert sits camouflaged among the content, advertisers are guaranteed eyeballs and content creators rejoice at the fact that their pages aren’t cluttered with banners and other annoying forms of ads.

In the early days of the sponsorship model, one could tell what was ad and what wasn’t. But as time passed, the line between content and ads started blurring to such an extent that we are now left wondering what is “real” content and what has been paid for. Think about it – you relied on news to inform you and help you build your opinions, but now there is a good chance of it being sponsored by a corporation aiming to sway your opinion to their advantage. And if you feel that this is far fetched, would you believe it if we told you that this is, in fact, Buzzfeed’s business model?

The sponsorship model has been receiving some serious flak, and rightly so. But as a result of this moral debate, native advertising has been shoved into the limelight. While people usually believe they know what native is all about, their knowledge is generally restricted to the sponsorship model, while having little or no knowledge of the native-display or social models. This leads them to associate the entire concept of native advertising to the sponsorship model, which means that a lot of the flak received flows over to the other forms of native.

But this isn’t true to a large extent. Take the social model as an example. Social media sites, especially Facebook, have done a fantastic job in embracing native advertising, moralities and all. Facebook’s “suggested posts” and “recommended pages” have ensured that audiences continue to use the platform and discover brands without being interrupted by ads. Similarly there are other players in the industry who are doing wonders with native ads.

Native advertising isn’t just one thing – it has many different forms and features. It can be a bucketload of positives, as opposed to the dark picture being painted about it. All that is really needed is discretion on the part of the publishers and advertisers on what is moral and what is not. At the end of the day, even audiences realise that a publisher will need to monetise his content to keep producing even better value content and they’re fine with ads just as long as they aren’t annoying.