Consumers Reject Lowest Common Denominator Native Ads — And So Should You
Not all native advertising is created equal. There is a wide and growing disparity between high-quality examples — those that are in the user’s activity stream, respectful of page content, and integrated with the site experience — and the lowest-common-denominator (LCD), “spots and dots” variety that may be in a feed (but that’s all).
This latter form exists because some networks and publishers are self-defining “native,” and buyers are eager to procure inventory at the lowest price. Smart marketers, agencies, publishers and brands are focusing on what matters — the consumers’ view — and are using this knowledge to perfect their native approaches.
Why The Low-Class Approach?
What is it about digital advertising that brings out the most base of commercial instincts, the hunt for the LCD? Despite the potential of display advertising, there has been a crushing surge toward right-rail, exchange-traded, auction-priced, audience-only-targeted, M-RECS with one-dimensional Flash creative.
Now that the tide is turning in that area (as argued here in a previous post), there is a boisterous group among our LCD-loving industry that is working hard to define native advertising only by its most basic element: position in a content feed.
Despite individual cries of foul by purveyors of the fine craft of content marketing, this low bar has taken hold in some areas. This is possible because the “judges” of native to-date have too often been only the networks, publishers, and the agencies they successfully sell to.
Native Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
Native, however, is not a designation to be bestowed by buyers or sellers; rather, native is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., the viewer. In its Native Playbook, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB, my employer) noted that native advertising is an aspiration and that success can only be derived from the user experience:
Advertisers and publishers aspire to deliver paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.
The key, of course, is that the viewer feels that the ads belong — not the publisher and not the media buyer. The problem is that it is impossible to know how each and every viewer perceives an ad; and in fact, there has been a paucity of quantitative research on the consumer’s view.
Happily, Edelman Berland, together with the IAB, conducted a robust research study, “Getting Sponsored Content Right: The Consumer View,” in order to understand how consumers perceive and feel about in-feed sponsored content (the newest and fastest growing form of native advertising).
This study made clear that users will not settle for LCD native efforts. 5,000 people who regularly visit U.S. news sites were surveyed after they were exposed to mock in-feed ads that resemble what is currently common on business, entertainment, and general news sites. These questions were informed by focus groups held in New York and Washington, D.C.
Five key factors for success were revealed:
1. Be Relevant. Relevancy (90%) is the top factor in sparking interest in in-feed sponsored content. While relevancy can be defined in several dimensions, it is generally accepted that the gold standard is one in which the ad content is germane to the surrounding page content while also being salient to the reader.
Advertising that is pertinent only in relation to a user’s recent web history does not meet a high threshold for relevance for native brand advertising.
2. Be Authoritative. 82% of respondents said that subject matter expertise is critical. Many native ad creators take their cues from trending topics…and then shoehorn the brand into the conversation. “What Brand X can learn from Amanda Bynes” rings too true to the ear.
This is the exact opposite approach to that valued by real people. They are pleased to hear from brands in areas where they are experts — for example, Powerade in sports hydration, Clinique in beauty, and Ralph Lauren in fashion.
3. Be Authentic. 81% say that brand familiarity and trust is important. When providing brand content on which you are an authority, “be yourself” is the message here. The trust viewers have in a brand will be enhanced.
This finding interestingly suggests that established brands have the advantage in in-feed native advertising over newcomers who are not as familiar and do not have an established level of trust.
In-feed sponsored content is most useful for established brands that seek to enhance and differentiate their image, deepen existing customer relationships, and/or launch new brand extensions, according to this research.
4. Tell a Story. 60% say they are more open to digital advertising that tells a story rather than only sells a product. Viewers are not against being sold to; in fact, this research showed that nearly nine out of ten (86%) feel that online advertising is necessary to receive free content online.
However, they also indicated that there is a time and a place for everything. In a feed, they prefer a story approach — fulfilling the age-old human need for a compelling narrative.
5. Partner with Great Sites. Preconceived opinions about a publisher are also an important part of the equation, with the research showing that a positive view of a news site’s credibility can significantly impact readers’ feelings about sponsored content, sparking a 33% uptick in perceived credibility of the ad’s content.
This is an enormously important reminder of the value of quality site context. Of equal importance, the study showed that sponsored content can also improve readers’ perception of the publisher’s site, with 70% of respondents either positive (38%) or neutral (32%) when asked whether “sponsored content can add value to my experience on this website.”
Consumers Reject LCD Native Advertising
Consumers made it clear in this large study that they will not accept LCD native advertising. In fact, they have raised the bar significantly for what is meaningfully acceptable. To be successful in a feed, a brand must present salient content on a subject in which it has an expertise, in its own voice, by telling a story.
This is the greatest common denominator and a proper aim for the industry. Smart marketers, agencies, publishers, and brands are setting their sights on this new level — learning from consumers’ views and working to ensure that their sponsored content meets user expectations and succeeds.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.