THE BLOG
06/03/2013 01:45 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

The Native Ad Controversy

Banner ads just don't cut it anymore. It's time to make way for some new advertising formats and ways to engage and inspire readers beyond the margins of the written page. The term 'Native advertising' has been getting quite a lot of buzz, with some industry pundits citing it as the 'holy grail of advertising.' While online and mobile display is still witnessing double-digit annual growth, according to recent polls, consumers, and especially teens, are tuning out traditional banners as they read and interact with digital content online, especially on their mobile devices.

In a consumer survey conducted by AYTM Market Research, 46.8 percent said mobile ads of any kind are "annoying" and 27.3 percent said they are "intrusive." Moreover, 42.9 percent reported that they've never clicked on a mobile ad on purpose.

This is not surprising. Banner ads have become an uninspiring ad format and publishers are left with no other choice but to plop them on their sites to keep afloat. As Brian Morrissey of Digiday wrote in his article The Native Ad Fallacy, "There's long been a hope that something will save [publishers] from the fate of banner ads traded as pork bellies, where publishers' role becomes little more than the providers of empty vessels for data-rich targeting systems to find their preferred audiences."

While Morissey's article continues to spin about how simply calling ads native shouldn't make them more valuable, his point is overshadowed by the hoards of advertisers looking to native as a way to build deeper engagement with consumers. With mobile in particular, there are several factors that limit campaign success such as small screen-size and lack of ad relevance and these can be solved through the native format.

In a significant step towards the validation of native ad formats, the publishing powerhouse Hearst launched its mobile native ad program this week, unveiling five new "sponsored features" ad units that will let brands hock their products across all of its digital platforms, including video, mobile, websites, and even social networks.

Bottom line: Consumers are sick of the status quo and brands want more vehicles for advertising beyond the shallow banner ad. Publishers are finally catching on.

The Native Ad v. Editorial Debate

Several reporters and thought leaders have voiced criticism about how native will lead to the eventual decline of journalism. As MediaBistro reported, although unlikely, it's possible that Hearst editorial staff will now be asked to create copy for this program. Staffers may have to live with this new reality and get used to writing about things that are not really news, like "15 Things You Didn't Know About 15 Captains, Commanders And Conquerors," sponsored by Captain Morgan. Seriously, these are actual stories.

"In the marketing world, there is no black and white anymore," says Lori Luechtefeld journalist at iMediaConnection, "We're all navigating a landscape in which the shades of gray multiply weekly. But that doesn't give us an excuse to flagrantly ignore editorial vs. advertising distinctions that have time and time again been proven valuable and, in fact, essential to maintaining consumer trust in both publications and brands."

According to Ben Kunz, VP of strategic planning at media agency Mediassociates, "Native advertising is a more insidious encroachment into consumer media content than any prior form of advertising. Billions of banner ad impressions may annoy readers, but they don't misdirect users by disguising the source of the message -- and this is exactly what native does. If publishers and marketers aren't careful, they are going to poison the well of digital ad communications by breaking consumer trust."

Truth be told, as a journalist I believe it is important to clearly delineate what is actual editorial from what is advertising, although I believe there is inherent potential in the native format. While I view Kunz's statement as an extreme stance against native advertising the ultimate reason people are attracted to it is because existing forms of advertising just don't work anymore. Native advertising nobly attempts to bridge the gap between piquing the intellectual curiosity of consumers while appealing to brand marketers who through ads, fund editorial content.

Who knows where this debate is headed but I applaud the fact that advertisers finally want to educate consumers by incorporating more long-form written content into ads. Advertisers need to shift their strategies to appeal to the more intellectually engaged consumers and now have a venue to communicate to people beyond the 6th grade level. People rarely read these days and at least native ads will get people engaged and participating in conversations beyond the static banner ad and if this is inspired by a brand . . . so be it.