By Masimba Biriwasha | Op-Ed | @ChiefKMasimba | January 05 2014
Native advertising is becoming quite the in-thing in to solving the monetization equation for digital publishers. For brand marketers, it appears as the key to unlocking much required engagement with online audiences.
Native advertising is a form of web advertising through which ads fit naturally into the online environments in which they appear. Simply put, the ads exist or belong by nature to the online space where they’re located. They match the design and feel of the platform reducing the impression of intrusion to user experience. These ads which on some platforms appear labeled as branded or sponsored content, include, articles, videos, blog posts among other types of content are seen as a new way to engage audiences.
For brand marketers, native advertising promises greater ROI against falling response rates to display and banner ads which many internet users simply ignore and treat as irritating background stuff to the content they seek online. Sharethrough, a company which specializes in native advertising, calls it the future of web monetization, adding that native ads are changing online advertising which is currently full of interruption, irrelevance and waste.
In a statement last year, Jed Williams, VP-consulting, BIA/Kelsey – a consulting firm focused exclusively on local media – said that native advertising formats are quickly emerging as alternatives to display that can generate better engagement and performance.
“The rapid growth in native is further accelerated by the widespread usage of social networks on mobile devices,” he added.
But native advertising is not without controversy as there are fears that it blurs the line between objective journalism and marketing – at least for traditional publishers. If readers are not judicious, they may easily mistake a native ad for objective content. On the other hand, once they identify that its sponsored content, they may not be bothered to open it.
The challenge for digital journalism publishers will be to make this distinction clear and transparent. Whatever the case, digital publishers are jumping on the bandwagon of native advertising. According to the Online Publishers Association (ONA), by the end of last year, 83 percent of all online publishers offered some form of sponsored content.
For brand marketers, the challenge is to create high quality, up to date, compelling and – most important – authentic content that enhances user value. As Patrick Keane, president of Sharethrough and former CEO of Associated Content succinctly puts it: advertisers must construct seamlessly integrated, non-interruptive, purpose-driven advertising or the ad will be an unwelcomed disturbance.
Despite the enthusiasm around native advertising, a big question is how long will it last? Users tend to be savvy and just as they ignore display and banners ads, native ads could meet the same fate.
“At the moment the curve of enthusiasm for the approach, and ignorance about its benefits or impact, are both at a high, which is the point at which companies make money. This is unlikely to last. For the consumer it is the issue of transparency. It is easy to become very exercised by the potential of native advertising for good and ill,” writes Emily Bell on Guardian.com.
Given the trends, it is difficult to say that digital journalism will forever remain in its own gated walls. Every generation creates its own journalism. We are probably witnessing the reinvention of the discipline in an era in which it has been pummeled.