How To Alienate Customers And Ruin Your Reputation.

By Posted in - Marketing Advice & Insight on May 25th, 2015

UPDATE: EIGHTEEN DAYS after I published this post, the Reuters Institute reported that one-third of news consumers in the US and UK feel deceived or disappointed by sponsored content aka native advertising. The rate of disillusionment goes up to 43% in the United States, where, Reuters says there is just more native advertising for people to get disgusted by. The report carries a lot of ‘shite-factor’ quotes from narked off people. Sample: ‘Self-playing videos are the devils [sic] creation. You’re browsing the news late at night and suddenly an ad for laxatives is blasting out from your laptop at full volume!’ ” said 51-year old Tanya in the United Kingdom.

One interesting observation about native advertising is that the better it is, the more it tends to irritate some people. An essay that’s part of the Reuters report says, “Readers appear to be more engaged with content that replicates the style and tone of the news brand, but as a result, are more likely to feel misled and deceived by the news brand. While news brands have much to gain from this new form of online advertising, the danger of further blurring of the line between advertising and editorial could harm the credibility of news brands, with little lasting impact on advertisers. Consumer attitudes show that, when it comes to native advertising, the stakes are far higher for news brands than for advertisers.

Native advertising is one of the biggest and more controversial obsessions in media. To some it is the future of content marketing. To others it’s the marketing equivalent of a Penny Falls arcade game, aka the coin pusher. There is something in the way the coins hover with a whole bunch looking like they’ll fall anytime soon that fascinates punters who want them to drop so desperately they can’t stop playing. When you pump money into the so-called ‘content discovery’ platforms such as Outbrain or Taboola, to name but two, you do so believing that sooner or later a customer is going to take that beautiful ride down the marketing funnel – the slide of persuasion – and make that golden transaction with you. The odds are probably better on the coin pusher.

As the title of this post suggests, native advertising can alienate customers and do little to help your SEO – in fact it can actually hurt organic search performance. We will come to that later. If you a reading this and know little about the world of Outbrain or Taboola and others, you will have come across them on most online news pages. Their widgets are typically located at the bottom of articles and provide recommendations for other content on the publisher’s site as well as sponsored links to pages elsewhere on the web.

Some news outlets use the moniker “presented by,” while others use “sponsored content”, “From around the web” or “Recommended Stories.” People often can’t distinguish native ads from editorial, which raises concerns about the ethics of the format. One thing is certain, native is an annoying fact of life in the Internet and part of the monetisation plumbing that consumers would rather did not exist and, failing that, would rather not know about.
Outbrain makes 190 billion content recommendations and reaches over 550 million unique visitors each month, according to the company. Outbrain’s raison d’être is to spare us the “highly optimised crap” of banner ads.” But despite their best intentions, many believe Outbrain and Taboola have made the Internet worse for the wear. It’s easy to see why. The links in their “related content” widgets often represent the worst of the Web. You’ve seen the headlines – 15 Good Looking Celebrities who destroyed themselves with plastic surgery; Seven causes of low testosterone etc. They all lead to websites selling something and usually completely irrelevant and uninteresting to the visitor.

The digital media publication Digiday has declared that “content marketing has a quality problem,” arguing that the new (native) format is worse than the lowly banner ad – in other words, it’s spam.

The editorial-mimicking ad format, which is arguably not new at all, but a modern spin on the advertorial, is still a relatively small part of budgets for most advertisers, but spend on native is increasing, despite the outcries over Outbrain and Taboola’s approach to content marketing. There have been investigations by the Better Business Bureau in the US and the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority. At the behest of the Better Business Bureau, Taboola agreed to make the sponsorship disclosures on its widgets more prominent. After the Advertising Standards Authority criticised Outbrain ads that did not “obviously identify” themselves as ads—a criticism that followed Outbrain’s declaration that it would remove “spammy” content from its network at the expense of 25% of its revenue—the company banned a new group of content producers from its platform, with a particular focus on “fake” stories, or ads disguised as content. The Advertising Standards Authority banned a Procter & Gamble video – ‘A Model Recommends’ – for not making it clear enough that it’s plugging P&G products, especially Max Factor.

One site, the tech startup news site PandoDaily, actually did remove related links from its site after finding their content distasteful. The recommended content in question was a story with “shocking” tips for picking up women, powered by a company called Gravity, which is owned by AOL. “There’s no amount of money that justifies that crap appearing on our pages,” editorial director Paul Carr wrote.

Whether you believe native is advertorial disguised as genuine editorial content to trick the user into clicking on it, or support the theory the idea of advertiser reliance radically distorts the concept of free media, the real and present danger of the Outbrain-Taboola style of clickbait journalism, for marketers and their clients, is the risk that it can devalue brand integrity.

The risk of confusing consumers is big. As a Contently survey found recently, people don’t trust sponsored content. Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents said they felt deceived when they realised an article or video was sponsored by a brand. Just over half said they didn’t trust branded content, regardless of what it was about. Fifty-nine percent said they believe that a news site that runs sponsored content loses credibility—although they also said they view branded content as slightly more trustworthy than Fox News.

The question we (marketers) should be asking is how much does it hurts the brands credibility? Is it deceptive? Is it ethical? Does it even work? Advertisers are spending $2-3 billion on native ads each year, even though readers are increasingly frustrated by these methods used by many marketers.

Terms like “spam” and “bait-and-switch” are commonly used to describe Outbrain and Taboola. Native ads really get on people’s nerves, it seems. Marc Andreessen, the prominent venture capitalist, who also happens to have invested in digital publications such as Business Insider and PandoDaily, says any serious publishers “should be shot” for using related content links, because they :degrade the user experience and the advertiser experience”. They are a “part of the ‘race to the bottom’ pervading Internet content,” he added, noting that the income they bring in is a short-term substitute for building a long-term quality business.

There is absolutely no denying that readers’ response to sponsored content is negative and especially strong. The findings of Contently’s survey follow data released by Chartbeat, a web analytics company, showing that only 24% of readers scroll through sponsored content, versus 71% for editorial content. And even of people are looking at sponsored content, it doesn’t mean they like what they see.

Brands and publishers will eventually figure things out before they turn readers off completely, but right now it seems that businesses have been somehow blinded by ambition and they are not really understanding how the efficacy of native and content marketing differs.

The big concern, in terms of ROI, is content marketing drives SEO value and boosts organic rankings; native advertising does not. While content marketing ROI can be tracked through increased organic rankings as a direct result of earning a diverse, high-quality link portfolio, native advertising reach is limited to the number of paid publisher partnerships and these “sponsored links” are not allowed to pass value. Also the average cost of launching a native advertising program with a top-tier news publisher is vastly more expensive then launching an amplified, paid for content marketing campaign.

And then there is the bounce rate factor, an often ignored consequence of ploughing endless dosh into native and then using traffic as a measuring stick. I have heard B2B brands, using native, complain of 90% plus bounce rates. If people have been tricked into visiting a site, they are not likely to hang around and they are even less likely to like the brand that has just wasted their time. And, although Google may not explicitly use analytics for SEO rankings, it is reasonable to assume that if a website has visits for irrelevant searches where most people leave within a few seconds, it won’t remain in top ranks of Google for very long. In short, bounce rate does affect SEO, which is kind of ironic if you are using native to drive traffic as part of an SEO strategy.

Brands should focus on producing content and connected experiences that bring value and utility to the consumer. Native advertising as trickery doesn’t work for marketers, our clients or their customers. The best native advertising is creative and driven by transparency and even then it is no substitute for content and experiences that consumers actively want to participate and engage in.

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