The Dark Future of Native Advertising

Dark staircase spiraling down.Native advertising, and specifically native publishing programs, will struggle in the future.

It isn’t because publishers’ offerings are flawed, because visitors have developed sponsored content blindness or because we have all developed an aversion to all sponsored content.

It comes down to a marketplace issue that, over time, will be a thorn in the side of native publishing. It will lead to a degradation of media brands, an influx of low quality content and ultimately the loss of many of the benefits that made native publishing attractive in the first place.

First a quick definition of native publishing. Then we will look at the research that points to an upcoming challenge to the growing native publishing market.

Native Publishing Definition: Paying to publish your content within the property of an established media company which traditionally maintains editorial control over published content. Native published content functions like the publication’s own editorial content.

Native publishing is a subset of in-feed native advertising, as defined by the IAB.

The Allure of Native Publishing

A study published by IPG Media Labs (and underwritten by Forbes, whose BrandVoice is one of the early Native Publishing programs relevant to B2B marketers) highlights the potential of branded content: Branded content meaningfully outperformed display advertising on every metric assessed, including lifts in awareness, brand favorability and purchase intent.

Branded content is delivering the results advertisers are looking for, and native publishing is one of the easiest ways to start creating branded content and ensure it is actually seen by your audience. Native publishing is the clear solution. Or is it?

The Reality of Marketing Content

Have you actually looked at the content most marketers are churning out? In a word, it’s awful. An uninspiring repetition of the information we already have. Yes, there are exceptions. Unfortunately, they are still the exceptions.

According to recent research from Chartbeat, native published content (or what they call native ad content) is suffering from low quality. On a typical article two-thirds of people are engaged for more than 15 seconds, on native ad content that plummets to about one-third. In addition, people don’t scroll to get into the content. Only 24% of people scroll on native content pages, roughly two-thirds less than the 71% of people who scroll on traditional content pages!

Making that statistic even worse, as Doug Kessler recently pointed out, this content often isn’t clearly labeled. Many visitors aren’t bouncing because of a sponsored content, advertorial or marketing disclaimer. They are bouncing because the content is that bad before they even get to scrolling. Ouch.

My own research last fall showed marketing content on Forbes was getting significantly less distribution that editorial content as well.

An Ugly Outcome for Native Publishing

When you combine marketing content people simply aren’t interested in with the increased interest in native publishing, from both advertisers and publishers, publisher brands will suffer. As they lose credibility, the value of native publishing falls. As the value falls, marketers that continue will need to turn to cheaper content sources to make the programs pay off. It is a downward spiral.

But content marketers committed to producing valuable and differentiated content have an alternative.

Build Your Own Content Brand

Everyone offering native publishing programs today has built a valuable content brand. You can too. Marketers before you have proven that you don’t have to be a media company to create a content brand that drives results. Here are just a few examples:

  • Since launching in 2010, Content Marketing Institute has a built a professional services business by establishing its own content brand.
  • Hubspot gets more than 1 million visitors a month to their site and nearly 750,000 leads a year. Largely driven by content, Hubspot is delivering numbers many marketers can’t match with much larger advertising budgets.
  • Indium Corporation has made their engineers the core of their content effort and are providing useful (i.e. valuable) information in a space many might see as boring.
  • EMC’s RSA Security Conference is one of the largest security conferences and draws an audience well beyond EMC’s client and partner base.

Today, the price of attention is talking about what your audience cares about. Fortunately for you, it is a price most other marketers aren’t yet willing to pay. There is still room, in nearly every market, for companies willing to pay that price to develop their own audience and content brand.

Companies that create their own content brand and develop their own audience can break their reliance on media companies that are lowering their content standards and eroding their brands.

Your Turn

There is still a short-term opportunity for native publishing, but long-term the best marketers will work to build their own audience. Are you ready for the challenge?

Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter (@wittlake)!

Photo Credit: Isengardt via Flickr cc

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  • Mark Cirillo

    I share your skepticism about Native Advertising as practice. I think the main problem with it, from the perspective of quality and relevance, is that ad brands don’t have to adhere to the same standards as editorial content.

    Readers (and the publisher’s brand) would be better served if it did – i.e. if ad brands were treated simply as content creators who had to compete with journalists, and were subjected to editorial oversight by the publisher brand.

    Of course that would be a different business model, and maybe it’s a stretch, but in some ways it’s a logical extension of what Google does with Quality Score.

    • Thanks Mark. I agree, that would be a great step to take. Unfortunately I think many publishers are so far beyond that point that they can’t even see it anymore.

      What really baffles me: publishers claim to maintain editorial independence by having a custom content group that must not have made the cut to work on the journalism side write on behalf of marketers.

      The internal separation is immaterial to me when the content is presented side-by-side under their masthead. At least content actually written by marketers is typically labeled as such, but I don’t know how much people outside of marketing understand that WSJ Custom Studios, for instance, is supposed to be a claimer that this is schlock a marketer paid us to write on their behalf.

      Example from the very unimpressive, IMO, content WSJ is creating for Brocade:

      Thanks for the great comment and support!

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  • Doniol

    I spent six years doing sponsored research at the EIU, which is part of The Economist. I can tell you that the independence guidelines are very strict. If the brand goes on a piece of sponsored content, you can be sure that it’s not an advertorial masquerading as research.

    But that’s not to say that the sponsored content has the same quality and relevance as the stories in The Economist. Nobody would choose to read a survey-based white paper over the magazine, which is intellectually playful and often darkly funny. Partly it’s the choice of topics – do you really want to read about IT compliance in the financial services industry? – and partly it’s the inherent conservatism of sponsors.

    Makes me nostalgic for the old ad-supported print model.

  • Great post Eric. I read it, along with the links within the post and my brain just exploded. Lots to digest, but fundamentally agree that building your own audience and having transparency into how your audience engages with that content is paramount. Please keep it coming…

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    Obviously it becomes difficult day by day to do Native advertising or publishing. I think if we are not take care of it it should be stop forever. This is the right time to be aware about this.