Why "native advertising" must die

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Usually when I come across an industry buzzword or buzzphrase that I don't like, I can wait it out. Ignore it, and it will go away. That has been the case with "widget" and "wireless" and so many others in this industry. (And I hope to high heavens it will be the case with "big data" and "SoLoMo."

But I can't ignore "native advertising" anymore. What I initially hoped would be a passing phrase in the marketing world has sparked such intense discussion, debate, and confusion that it must be addressed, and it must be addressed by all parties in our industry -- brands, agencies, publishers, vendors, and PR professionals alike. Because, while some argue that the fundamental premise of native advertising is not new, the spotlight that is now being shown on the matter -- sparked, so far as I can tell, by the mere fact that someone drummed up such a lovely little phrase to describe the concept -- has fueled the evolution of "native advertising" to the point that it could become a whole new beast. And that beast could threaten the very foundation of publishing, if not managed with a firm hand (and a reliable choke collar).

And sorry, brands and agencies -- you're at risk too. You know all that money you're spending (or getting paid) to create "valuable" content (whether it's an article, tweet, image, or video) for the purposes of native advertising? That's all going to go down the tubes if our industry doesn't draw some very clear lines on what is and isn't acceptable in this realm.

Why "native advertising" must die

Not just semantics

Here's the thing: We as an industry don't need the term "native advertising." And I'm not just nitpicking semantics here. The sheer existence of the term could lead us down a dangerous path. As such, some of the companies that are aligning themselves with the term right now -- reputable companies with great offerings -- might want to reconsider.

"But Lori," you say. "'Native advertising' is just another way of describing something that marketers have done for ages." Fine. If that's the case, the term is redundant. Stop using it. You're confusing people.

"But Lori," you say. "'Native advertising' truly is a new opportunity for marketers that needs its own distinction." Well, if that's the case, then this "new opportunity" you're describing is actually a horrible blurring of the distinction between pure editorial and advertising that's going to ultimately backfire on publishers and marketers alike. So not only do we need to squash the term "native advertising," but we must also put an end to the bastardized practices that it has spawned.



Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 9, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Thanks, Liz! I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't. :) I'm glad you weighed in!

Liz Pelikan
Liz Pelikan April 9, 2013 at 4:18 PM

I was just discussing this very same topic with a past colleague of mine. Thank you, really, thank you for addressing this. I really do believe that when we do our jobs right, advertising becomes a service to the users we're reaching. It should go without saying, that what we do to build brand affinity among our audience is, in turn, true to the brand and everything it has stood for. Should we have to give this a name? No; but someone did, and they called it "native advertising." For me, the more we come up with phrases and buzzwords to explain how to best do our job, the less time we spend actually doing just that - our job. I've been feeling disheartened by the term. It reminds me of the parsley garnish restaurants put on top of a pile of mashed potatoes. I think even the chef knows you're just going to pick it off and set it aside, but still they put it there as a flourish of "look what I did to make this more appealing." Since when did we need this much flair to explain what we're doing and how or why we're going to do it? With so many interpretations of the meaning behind buzzwords like "native advertising" we're only confusing clients. We need to be able to manage expectations and present them with a clear understanding of what we can offer them, and why it's beneficial. (Hold the garnish.)

Tom Troja
Tom Troja April 5, 2013 at 4:37 PM

Nice discussion Lori and all.... Hi.... I'm thinking the real opportunity to go "native" here for brands needs to be thought of as marketing not advertising. Brands today wake up everyday and have to think what am I going to say today. We are past campaigns. Social has demanded a new approach beyond campaigns to everyday live in direct rearionships with people in their stream... everyday unique. This is beyond advertising... brands must think like a a person and that is "native"... native to the human condition. If we see you scheming, dishonest... we file that away under bad person and we don't buy from you. Everyday brands must communicate in a human way across all social channels. This "native advertising" is a refection of the past come to roost in the present. Brands that know who they are, have a solid social identity and understand how to talk about themselves without talking abut themselves... getting people to do that for them... see Red Bull, Jack Daniels and a few other clients... mea culpa... They have a fully formed personality that is communicated effectively and they understand this is a day to day effort to build long term relationships. Be calm and carry on.

Guy Cookson
Guy Cookson April 4, 2013 at 10:21 PM

@David The issue of scale comes into play with IAB style ads because each of their formats are of fixed dimensions and served within an iframe. Native ads do not have to use the same old conventions. At Respond we serve native ads using HTML, which means we can utilise the style of the surrounding content (same typeface, text colour, link colour etc, although this can all be customised by the publisher if required) and can use responsive design, so the ads can be placed anywhere on the page and adapt to the available space e.g. under a headline, within an article, at the end, in a side column etc (all clearly marked of course). The advertiser simply provides an image (usually their logo) and up to 140 characters of text. Native ads can therefore be incredibly simple to buy and sell, and are counter-intuitively actually much more effective than the old intrusive banner ads which aim to capture attention through being interruptive in an age when almost everyone is trained to ignore them - we're seeing ten time higher response rates to our formats than IAB ads.

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 4, 2013 at 9:57 PM

LOL, @Daniel. LOL. You throw in a litter box and a subscription to Cat Fancy, and you've got yourself a deal.

Daniel Backhaus
Daniel Backhaus April 4, 2013 at 9:53 PM

@Lori, thanks for the reply and clarification. And also for injecting that great sense of humor that made your original article so fun to read. I agree there needs to be disclosure and transparency, no argument there. I don't really see this as a problem though, at least not right now. I feel I can usually discern when someone is making a plug or exhibiting bias, similarly to when an op-ed - or, for that matter, a piece of suggested legislation - is written by an obviously biased party. Arguably, the stakes are much higher in these cases and I wish we had more disclosure and transparency in this space.

Finally, I'm not sure why you would purport that ponies are the must-have item this year, when so obviously it is kittens. By the way, my cat just happened to have a litter of six last week and my kids are all over them with affection. They'll be ready for adoption in another 4-5 weeks, and I would hate for you to be without. Five are already spoken for, I'm afraid, but the last one - which happens to be the cutest of the bunch, incidentally - could be yours, provided you act fast. And cats are so independent and care-free, much better than ponies, really. Trust me on this, you want to seize this opportunity or risk being left cat-less and a social pariah. What say you, friend? ;-)

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 4, 2013 at 9:31 PM

@Daniel - Thanks for your comments. With regard to your first question -- yes, actually. I do believe advertorials and sponsored content become more acceptable when clearly marked as such. My main concern -- and where I think native advertising has been presenting challenges -- is with regard to transparency. Readers need to be given the information required to decide how much credibility a source deserves. And that very much includes knowing who has funded the content that the reader is interested in. With that knowledge, different readers will make different decisions. But they need that foundation.

Now, with the knowledge that a piece of content is sponsored or produced by a company with a financial stake in the topic, a reader might still find the article or a video to be VERY credible. A lot of sponsored and advertorial content is excellent and informational and, in the end, that's what marketers should strive for. Just because a post on BuzzFeed is sponsored by a "partner" doesn't preclude me from reading and enjoying the content. But yes, I might choose to avoid an article titled "Why ponies are the must-have item of 2013" if the content is sponsored by The Pony Sellers of America. Then again, if that article is written by a journalist at a publication that I've grown to trust when it comes to all things equine, I just might click. (Who doesn't love ponies?) Again, it's all about full and clear disclosure.

With regard to your last point, I am actually referring to the publisher side of the equation when I say that page views are often valued over quality. Sad but true in many cases, though I appreciate the attempts by many publications to achieve both. No doubt that readers themselves want and seek out quality. But there's a whole bag of tricks that publishers have at their disposal to entice readers to click on less-that-worthy content.

Daniel Backhaus
Daniel Backhaus April 4, 2013 at 8:48 PM

Lori, while I agree that the term "native advertising" is perhaps a bit unfortunate, I do take exception to the somewhat haughty tone of your article, which I find to be splitting hairs. So advertorials, sponsored content, et al become acceptable once clearly marked as such? How big must the call-out be for no one, including your staff to miss it? And, isn't nearly ALL content (yours included) these days - at least what's available free on the Web - "sponsored" to some extent? Can we not expect readers to be discerning and aware enough to recognize this? Do we really need disclaimers on billboards now, so people will recognize that they are ads?

Moreover, just how is it wrong for somebody like the VP of Contently to tout the rise of a trend that just happens to benefit his company? How does the fact that the piece was written by an industry practitioner cause the article's "credibility to crumble"? Does the fact that IBM helps people meet the challenges arising from Big Data (yes, I know this term grates - which is why I chose it) inherently taint whatever they might write on the topic? Would it be better to have a "professional journalist" (increasingly rare, and for good reason) write about such complex topics rather than the data experts that work in this field every day? While I agree that flagrant plugs are a nuisance, do readers really lack the ability to recognize and correspondingly shun such content? I for one much prefer a well-written, informed and insightful piece on a subject, sponsored or not, to the sort of key-word laden, shallow news wire or PR re-writes that seem to have become the hallmark of today's editorial content.

Which brings me to my last point: where exactly is the "world where page views and volume of content are valued over quality"? Ad networks and publishers aside, most discerning readers and informed professionals much prefer quality over volume. The problem is that, increasingly, quality is no longer the domain of the (often dwindling) editorial staff. I for one welcome anyone filling this void and providing quality content that informs, engages and educates. Crappy content, like crappy ads, will fall flat, but I'll take a well-written advertorial with some valuable insights over an annoying animated banner, pre-roll, or interstitial any day.

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 4, 2013 at 8:36 PM

@Chris Cunningham and @David - It looks like the two of you could have a pretty interesting conversation. And maybe you already have. Thank you to you both for weighing in.

@Chris Cunningham - I definitely agree with what you're saying. Putting the focus on the user and improving the advertising experience is what it's all about, and that is happening in a lot of areas. Leave it to an editor to get hung up on terminology, I know. But instead of our industry hashing out the specifics surrounding the definition of native advertising, I believe the concept is instead being allowed to grow into an unwieldy beast spanning many more practices (particularly on the content side) than perhaps originally intended. I think that poses a challenge to companies whose intentions in the space are pure.

@David - Scale is definitely an issue that merits an article (hell, a book) of its own. (I'm sure Chris has a chapter to contribute as well.) And it's one that can't be ignored. In that regard, do you see publishers posing a serious threat to agencies when as they start setting up these "native advertising" divisions in-house?

David Smith
David Smith April 4, 2013 at 7:22 PM

At the IAB, as a question to one of his "own" panels, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the IAB asked a question from the floor about native advertising. In asking the question, he made the point that, if taken to it's conclusion, there would be 1,000 different ad units agencies would have to create. The panel answered with, well, if it works, what does it matter. It matters a lot. A client will not pay for a scope of work that includes custom advertising for every vehicle. I appreciate the arguments made by you Lori and am inclined to agree. But whether you agree or disagree (as some responders do), the point that native advertising for all is just not an economically sustainable model has been ignored. There is not enough time in the day or enough money in the creative or production budget to make it happen. Yeah, the publishers can take on a greater part of the load, but the agency and brand lose creative control. And, there is something to be said for the look and feel of a lot of advertising. You look at it and you immediately know who it is an ad for, even if it is new. No way that native can fix that part of the problem either. We need standards to survive. I am not talking about stifling creativity, but we can't survive on a tower of babel approach where everyone does something different. Either from an economic or from an effectiveness standpoint.

Chris Cunningham
Chris Cunningham April 4, 2013 at 6:52 PM

As, you, Lori, point out, "Beyond the above-mentioned tactics, other companies positioning themselves in the native space are focusing on inserting activity-driven display ads into the natural ecosystem of the content that people are consuming. Some of these ads are quite brilliant, and I generally like what these companies are doing. But again, why we need to apply a muddy term like 'native advertising' to these practices is beyond me. I realize 'activity-based in-content display ads' is hardly a sexy moniker. But at least everyone know what we're talking about and can immediately discern the value."

"Native advertising" isn't just a term, it is about creating a category, which is important to move the industry, including publishers and brands and agencies, forward. Without it, we'd be thinking about the same old advertising focused on page-views and impressions. Native has raised the bar by highlighting the user experience, resulting in better advertising geared to people. Not unlike social networking, user-generated content or pragmatic buying, human nature is people don't like change. Focusing on the term is not what's important, it is about making advertising better and the category is doing just that with its focus on people, which is a big change.

Native advertising, whether on the content as advertising or the pure-play advertising, which my company, appssavvy is tackling, side of the coin, has a common thread. Unlike other categories, except for paid search, the user experience comes first. While I'm not on the content side of the equation, on the pure-play advertising side of the native category, we're demonstrating that as an industry we've been focused for far too long on the question of "who," rather than the "when" and the "why." Native, activity-based advertising, again, our business, believes timing and context are key and advertising, which should be noticed as just that - it isn't about tricking a consumer - it is about reshaping the delivery and reception of advertising from around the experience to part of it.

Behavior has shifted on the Internet, whether on the web or mobile, from content consumption to an active experience. However, we're still focused on triggering ads based on a page loading, rather than creating new inventory that takes into account the right time and the right context. Advertising native to the user experience embraces those attributes and provide a much larger canvas for storytelling - what advertising is all about - then today's traditional placements. This is how advertising should be done and companies, such as ours are leveraging the native opportunity to make advertising better within natural breaks of activities, when people are most receptive, in real time.

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 3, 2013 at 8:44 PM

@Chris - Thanks for weighing in. I agree with you on the needed shift in the way brands relate to consumers -- absolutely. Content and engagement are valuable and vital for brands today. And I also agree that not all of what's being lumped under "native advertising" right now is advertorial. But when we're talking promoted tweets, sponsored stories, and video ads via sharethrough, are we not simply talking a more targeted manifestation of sponsored content? Why the need to treat it as (and call it) something new and, thus, open the door for further blurring of lines that ought not be blurred?

Chris Tuff
Chris Tuff April 3, 2013 at 7:54 PM

I actually disagree... for years marketers have been using interruption as a way to get people to see their marketing messages. This comes in the form of pre-roll, banners etc. We're now entering a time where brands are acting more like people and less like brands and do so through the form of engagement and content distribution. This is difficult though because brands need to hit the "Right People, with the Right Content at the Right Time" allowing them to choose to engage with it. Don't get this mixed up with ADVERTORIAL, I'm talking about promoted tweets, sponsored stories on Facebook and video ads like what sharethrough helps distribute. And yes, brands need to be moving towards this model. For Direct Response they can rely on the DSP's and algorithms... for content you need native distribution and targeting.

Ken Roberts
Ken Roberts April 3, 2013 at 6:12 PM

You're on to something here ...

I just realized that all those lobbyists authoring the bills for Congress aren't acting on "special interests." They are merely participating in "Native Lawmaking" ;-)

Caveat Lector

Sylvie St-Amand
Sylvie St-Amand April 3, 2013 at 5:09 PM

Hi Lori,
I completely agree - new name for an old trick. Especially in this era of transparency, the concept of native advertising is rather counterproductive... I firmly believe it can hurt a brand more than help it. Great article, thank you!

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 3, 2013 at 4:58 PM

@Guy - That's the rub, isn't it? Our industry certainly has a knack for taking a perfectly good word or phrase and convoluting it to the point of absurdity. (Poor, Merriam-Webster. No respect.) Obviously it would take the voice of more than one lowly editor to alter our industry's terminology on this one, but when it comes to advertising via companies like Respond, "in-content" and "non-intrusive" speak volumes to me! So I like the subtext you're already including in how you communicate your value.

Guy Cookson
Guy Cookson April 3, 2013 at 3:52 PM

@Lori - I agree with you, we are certainly keen not to have what we've been doing over the last two years be tarnished by association. The reason we use "native" is that it's technically the correct definition for something that belongs to it's environment, which through the use of HTML (rather than an image in an iframe) we achieve. If there's a better way to articulate this kind of advertising it would be great to hear some ideas!

Lori Luechtefeld
Lori Luechtefeld April 3, 2013 at 3:36 PM

@Brant - Thanks for weighing in. You're right. In no way do I mean to paint journalists as the innocents or heroes in this equation. I specifically mentioned promotional article placement by PR professionals in this piece because it seems like the unpaid equivalent of some of the "native" placements out there. But you're right -- lazy reporting and over-reliance on press releases is just as big a part of this picture. Not a new problem, and certainly not one that's going away soon. Sadly.

@Andy and @Guy - Thanks also for your thoughts! I think these two opposing views perfectly represent the problems that have arisen surrounding the term "native advertising" -- the fact that depending on how someone defines it, it could be either a compelling new ad unit or a diabolical legal quagmire. Hence my suggestion that we scrap the term and gain a little more clarity on what we're really talking about when it comes to certain types of advertising. When it comes to non-disruptive, clearly labeled ad units that enhance the reader experience, I think we're seeing valuable options emerge. What I don't want to see is simple enhancements like this getting lumped in with what many are pointing out as more-insidious manifestations of "native" placements.

Guy Cookson
Guy Cookson April 3, 2013 at 3:21 PM

*here not hear

Guy Cookson
Guy Cookson April 3, 2013 at 3:18 PM

Hi Lori,

I think the problem here is one of definition. The way we define "native advertising" is pretty simple - it's an ad unit that's styled to look like it belongs to the site. It's that simple. It's not deceptive or misleading, it just looks and feels like it's part of the experience, instead of being a graphic slapped on the top. The native ads we deliver are not interruptive or annoying, they are clearly labeled "advertisement" and cannot be mistaken for editorial content. Eye-tracking studies show people mostly ignore standard IAB formats, and who can blame them? Ads that aim to distract can't win in 2013. Respond Native Ads are designed to add value, rather than detract from the offering.

You can see a quick overview of what we do hear, I'd welcome your thoughts:

Guy Cookson

Katharine Panessidi
Katharine Panessidi April 3, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Nice perspective, Lori - thank you! I like this quote, "In the marketing world, there is no black and white anymore. We're all navigating a landscape in which the shades of gray multiply weekly." I feel like I know the space an inch thick and mile wide.

Self serving comment: we're tackling this buzzword/topic at next month's iMedia Agency Summit: Should be a robust conversation!

Andy Sernovitz
Andy Sernovitz April 3, 2013 at 12:14 PM

Great article, Lori.

We're missing the biggest issue with native advertising: It's illegal.

The point of native advertising is to trick consumers that advertiser content is really editorial. And the legal test is if the "average reader" understands that it's an ad. Since native advertising's job is to misdirect, it's illegal on it's face.

These aren't new rules -- it's the same old Truth in Advertising laws created by the FTC in 1938. And the FTC is actively busting brands for this shameless attempt to rebrand stealth marketing.

Brands: Be wary of anyone selling you a native advertising product. The FTC has made it clear that the BRAND is liable. The eager agency/tech provider who convinces you that this is OK has nothing to lose. You do.

Brant Emery
Brant Emery April 3, 2013 at 12:03 PM

I agree that when everyday information becomes a domain of paid and organic content, universally bundled together without any defining labels, there will be real repurcussions. However, the last stage of native advertising in your 3-point list has been around for many years: journalism. As you, kind of, point out - but stay away from saying, just pointing at PR instead (yes, how dare they tricks us with clever press releases) - the fact is that at its best, most media use only a weak form of corroboration to validate stories. They'll call someone in the company, maybe track down a customer / external validator (usually provided by said initiator of release), and that's about it. Perhaps Google too (soon too, there won't be very many 'organic' results in your Google search pages either). As a media owner or advertiser, really it's potentially attractive because they can cut out the middle men. Profit favours the shortest path after all.