Are Native Ads Good or Bad for Digital Journalism?

By Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor-At-Large | January 01, 2013 | @ChiefKMasimba

Late last year, The New York Times announced that it will be going big on native advertising in 2014 raising questions about authenticity, particularly on what is and what is not journalism.

Native advertising, described by AdAge as the hottest new form of advertising, is a web advertising method that employs content to lure readers. That’s a very basic definition. According to Sharethrough, a company which specializes in the medium, native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.

On January 8, The New York Times will unveil a new digital look which incorporates native advertising and will be more stronger on visuals such as video and photography.

The New York Times, a lodestar of journalism the world over, will feature the native adverts – first on the newspaper’s website and later on its mobile platforms – as way to shore up revenues in an industry hard struck by technology. Other large publishers such as Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Buzzfeed are already rolling out native advertising which promises greater interaction with users, albeit at the risk of breaking the separation between advertising and editorial content.

There are fears that consumers may be duped by the nature of native advertising – a hot topic in digital publishing – with consumers expected to distinguish between what is paid native advertising versus editorial content. Native adverts are made to be cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Put simply, the ads are supposed to look similar to the surrounding published content

Native advertising seeks to deliver content within the context of a user’s experience with formats including  features like a color bar and the words “Paid Post” would enable readers to identify material as advertising content.

“There is a renaissance underway in digital advertising that is driving brands, publishers and consumers to communicate with each other in more personal and natural ways,” said Patrick Albano, Vice President, Social, Mobile and Innovation Sales at Yahoo, and Co-Chair of the IAB Native Advertising Task Force. “Native advertising is an important piece of this evolution.”

According to IAB, native advertising has emerged both as an exciting new way for digital markets to engage with the consumer, and as a new source of advertising revenue for publishers. If you have been on a web page with branded content, you probably know how intrusive and distracting such content is to user experience. Because such content is formatted just like an news article, users can potentially be waylaid.

New York Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, was quoted in a letter to employees as saying said that features like a color bar and the words “Paid Post” would enable readers to identify material as advertising content. He added that there would be “strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads.”

But whether readers will be able to figure out the difference between editorial content and paid advertising is shrouded in controversy. The seamless integration of branded messaging into consumers’ content experiences in order to acquire attention maybe regarded as an art of deception.

The Time quoted Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission critiquing native advertising saying at a conference last year.

““By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a nonbiased source,” she said.

If readers don’t fall prey to the deception of native of advertising, it’s difficult to see how the ads will succeed.

“I firmly believe that advertising on the modern internet will be defined by meaningful content, not standard ads. There’s a movement happening, away from interruptive, traditional ads, and towards thoughtful brand stories — and native ads are the most potent and effective distribution strategy for content-based advertising,” said Dan Greenberg, Founder and CEO, Sharethrough. “For advertisers, native, content-based advertising is the translation layer between the modern internet and traditional TV.”

In his letter to employees, Sulzberger acknowledged that native advertising is “relatively new and can be controversial,” but is necessary to help “restore digital advertising revenue to growth.”

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