Is Native Advertising an Evolution or a Mutation?

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Was there truth to John Oliver's rant or was the comedic host unfair in his admonishments?

Time has done little to dull the sting of John Oliver's satirical rant against native advertising. With more than 1.5 million views and 1,500 comments (as of this writing), the HBO talk show host's incendiary critique has torn through the Web, garnering viral praise for both its humor and scrutiny.

“[Oliver's] points and the overall topic definitely deserve a lot more discussion,” says Ash Nashed, CEO and founder of digital media company Adiant. However, now that this discourse has started, where should it go? Even better, where has the conversation been thus far?

Much of Oliver's ire was directed at Buzzfeed and its native ad model. “Portraying BuzzFeed's practices as representative of all of native advertising is an over-generalization. That is just one native approach,” Nashed says. “Native ads, content marketing, proper disclosures, and purposely misleading practices are interrelated, but separate points.”

Oliver's assault on advertorial content was bolstered by the real ethical implications in misleading consumers. In fact, some take a hard line against all native ads, even those clearly cited as such. “There is no doubt that this is an unethical misuse of the public's trust and should not be tolerated by ad networks, publishers, or their audiences,” opines Sergey Denisenko, CEO at ad network MGID.  “As a matter of fact, the FTC already has regulations in place to make sure this doesn't happen.” However, according to Oliver's Buzzfeed example, misleading or obscure sponsorship labeling occurs often enough on major platforms that there may be inherent flaws in the model. Perhaps an alternative is necessary?

“What alternative? The fact of the matter is that advertising has been dying a slow death and it has to evolve to be more effective—online advertising in particular,” explains Paige O'Neill, CMO at SDL. “I don't believe sponsored content is the final form for advertising.” That's not to say native advertising cannot improve as a practice. Brands can increase the ethical fidelity and overall effect of native ads, according to Denisenko, Nashed, and O'Neill. Here are three ways:

Educate through content

Branded content offends few when the aim is to advise or inform. “Strive to educate and provide true informational value on these topics,” O'Neill says. “There is most definitely a way to develop [native ad] content in a way that achieves the goal of educating the reader and getting across the brand value.”

Use transparent header language

Labeling content as “Recommended” or “More in news” is the definition of counterproductive, unless the aim is to confuse consumers. “Ensure the use of transparent header language for native units and widgets,” Adiant's Nashed says. “Use headers like ‘Offers and Articles from Around the Web,' as this header clearly explains the mix of ads and content with which a consumer is about to engage.”

Do not obfuscate

In line with Nasheed's emphasis on clarity, Denisenko suggests that marketers avoid creating content that borders on being an ad. “If an ad itself suggests that a person would be encouraged to use a product or service it cannot go unnoticed. [What] Oliver opposes are the ads that are masqueraded for content even though properly labeled,” Denisenko says. “The whole chain of content marketing must remain ethical from start to finish so that the consumer's trust remains intact.”

Although the future of native advertising is unclear, it has proven effective for brands and valuable to consumers--but Oliver's criticisms cannot be ignored. The model must continue to evolve to avoid damaging customer trust.

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