Native advertising is an umbrella term for paid media formats that mimic the form and context of non-paid media content.
Many native advertising efforts have produced significantly higher engagement rates than typical digital advertising formats, such as banner ads, specifically because native ads don’t feel like ads. An August 2013 report from the advertising network Celtra stated that “Native ads deliver more than 4-times higher expansion rate/CTR compared to static mobile banners and more than 12-times higher than desktop banner ads.”
From the user’s initial, and sometimes entire, perception, native ads are the fun and informative things — the articles, Facebook posts, listicles, etc. — and not those worthless banner ads. However, this modification in user perception has also provoked moral concerns about user deception because, as Bob Garfield of MediaPost asks, “Doesn’t the reader have the right to know whose interests are being served by the content?”
The Federal Trade Commission, in its ongoing mission to stop “unfair or deceptive ads or practices in or affecting commerce,” held a seminar on native advertising titled Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?, in which experts from all angles of the debate shared their experiences and opinions. (Videos of the seminar are accessible on the FTC site.)
During the FTC’s seminar, David Franklyn, Director of the McCarthy Institute for IP and Technology Law, noted that his research on search engine paid results revealed “deep [user] confusion about the difference between paid and unpaid content,” but also that “[Approximately] a third of people say they would click on something more knowing that it’s an ad … so if what they want is to be entertained by a paid placement, and don’t care that much about whether it’s being differentiated … [then] what are we protecting the consumer from?”
I wholeheartedly agree that users have a “right to know whose interests are being served by the content,” which will be achieved by more clearly informing users about the paid nature of paid content. But, to the extent that Franklyn’s findings hold true across contexts, native advertising isn’t being discounted by users solely because of its paid sources. Of course there is the potential for damaging and deceptive user experiences, but there is also the potential for valuable and non-deceptive user experiences.
The success of native advertising depends on its ability to non-deceptively rival, if not exceed, the interestingness of the non-paid content it accompanies. This dependency will intensify as more effective methods of communicating the paid nature of native advertising are established, because if users begin to associate native ads with boring experiences they’re not going to engage with native ads.