Marketers are shifting their dollars from banner ads to native ads, but many in-content ads now border on deception. It is well-known that native ads net higher engagement than banner ads because they look and feel just like the content users want.
The key to preserving the value of native ads, though, is to earn and maintain audience trust with clear disclosures. Yet, a surprising number of large, well-funded companies are burying disclosures and starting down the slippery slope of deception.
This is destroying the future of native ads and it needs to stop.
It only takes a few major publishers to extinguish consumer trust in native ads. Many people tell me that they’ve clicked on “More From Around the Web” links on major news portals only to be taken to a fake product review article, leaving them feeling fooled. They are now much more cautious about which “widgets” they click on as a result. Our industry must resist short-term temptations to increase click rates and instead insist on providing appropriate safeguards and standards to preserve the effectiveness of native ads.
Based on a recent Federal Trade Commission panel on native advertising, in which my company, Adiant, participated, and my experience as a pioneer with this format, I would like to propose the following guidelines for our industry:
1. Use transparent header language for native units and widgets. How many times have you seen a collection of images and left-justified headlines saying “Recommended From Around the Web” or “You May Like” or “More In the News” only to find out they were ads in disguise?
These headers, in large, bold text, are sometimes accompanied by tiny, pale gray disclosures on the right but people focus on the large text. The headers should accurately describe what is being presented to the consumer. Many of these widgets include links to legitimate editorial content from serious news sites, but they also have ads mixed in. Simply labeling the unit based on the news content and ignoring that there are ads mixed in is deceptive.
I prefer “Offers and Articles from Around the Web.” The Wall Street Journal uses “Content From Our Sponsors.” These seem like accurate labels to me. Things like “Recommended” or “More in the News” are simply deceitful. Even “From Around the Web” doesn’t really disclose anything. Isn’t everything that you are viewing online pretty much from around the web? What’s the purpose of saying it, other than to encourage users to click?
2. If it’s an ad, tell the reader. Many native widgets promote true editorial content alongside paid distribution from other publishers and then mix in direct response advertorials. On some news sites, widgets have four to eight different thumbnails that alternate real content with ads. How can a reader tell the difference?
Some of the units attribute the advertisers’ names to each thumbnail, but many of these advertorials use names that look just like real publishers, such as “Consumer Money News.” People can’t distinguish between these names and legitimate editorial content from sites like the Daily Beast.
Ideally, true editorial content should be separated from advertorials. If that’s not done, the disclosure should err on the side of alerting the user that the entire widget contains advertising or advertorial content.
Phrases like “Sponsored Content” don’t cut it for several reasons. First, some research shows the most consumers don’t understand what the word “sponsored” means. It may be a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act if even “a significant minority of consumers” are deceived. Second, the word “sponsored” has historically meant that a sponsor is associating its brand with independently produced content. It does not mean that the sponsor is creating the content.
Historically, the terms “advertorial” or “advertising” have been used to identify content produced by a paying advertiser and therefore those are the safest terms to use for disclosure on widgets. The disclosures should be above the widgets, not below, so that a user can clearly see it without scrolling.
Even more troubling, some major ad providers are no longer providing any disclosures on their widgets. Google, which used to dress its text ad units with a straightforward “Ads by Google” label, now provides widgets sporting a lonely blue triangle icon from AdChoices. In many cases, the AdChoices text doesn’t even appear unless a user hovers over the triangle. A recent survey by Parks Associates found that unfortunately only a minority of consumers understood the intent of the blue triangle icon.
Given that Google’s text ad units are often interspersed within the content on thousands of web pages, the obvious outcome is that consumers will click on the text thinking it’s real content, not advertising. Relying on any sole icon is insufficient and arguably deceptive.
3. Stop tricking people on landing pages. One of the major issues with native advertising is that the ad units, or widgets, can be mistaken for real content. If a consumer clicks and is taken to a landing page that resembles unbiased editorial content but is actually advertorial, then they are even more likely to be deceived. It’s important that publishers and native ad providers go through a review and approval process with each advertiser to make sure landing pages are clearly labeled at the top of the page. Simply saying that an article is “sponsored” does not indicate the authorship or the agenda of the content.
Again, the best labels for advertiser-created content are either “advertising” or “advertorial.” These are terms that magazines, which have been doing native advertising for many years, typically use for their advertiser-controlled content.
I don’t claim to be the expert nor is my company Adiant flawless, but I am invested in the long-term success of the native advertising format. To be responsible stewards of the online ecosystem and the financing that keeps it going, we all need to take serious steps now to respect consumers and earn their trust. I hope that my colleagues, partners and competitors will take these recommendations to heart and add their own suggestions.