Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners wrote a great piece recently about the absolute erosion of trust and credibility the Guardian (as one example of many major media outlets) is essentially selling off to the highest bidder through their use of native advertising. It’s a fascinating topic and I’d highly recommend you read the original piece, but it really left me wondering if this type of native advertising is worth it for anyone. Now to be clear, I’m not talking about things like sponsored posts on social media and that sort of effort to get your content in front of people. I’m talking specifically about the type of native advertising that deals in opacity and goes out of its way to appear as if it’s from some trusted or at least neutral source, rather than the business it promotes. Putting my most cynical hat on, I can see how the more questionably ethical form would be appealing in the short term for many parties. Media outlets get extra content (and typically some kind of kick back from the non-media folks they’re giving a platform), marketers get their content in front of more people with a thin veneer of trust layered on top (for as long as it lasts), and businesses get that many more eyeballs in front of their products. But the more I thought about and poked and prodded at it, the more I thought the cost was too high for all involved.
For media outlets, it costs you your credibility
If I get linked to a newspaper’s website, a newspaper that I know of and have read and trust, and I find myself in the middle of a native advertising exercise in obfuscation with tiny “sponsored content” tags everywhere I turn, I no longer trust that newspaper. That may sound extreme to some, but it really is as simple as that. The point of going to a trusted, major media source is that I don’t have to vet every byline to see whether I should trust anything the article contains. As a reader, if I already have to put my “cynical fact-checker and Snopes veteran” hat on, that major news site is no more useful to me than any other site on the internet. You’ve now sold away your competitive advantage because the little guys are now as trustworthy as you are. I don’t care how much the ad agencies and their clients are paying, that’s not worth it.
For marketers, you’re making your own job harder
As a marketer, I know that one of the biggest hurdles I face is getting past people’s cynicism towards advertising and brand messaging. And honestly, I’m a consumer and a writer too, so I understand where the cynicism comes from and am guilty of it myself, so I don’t begrudge the general public their skepticism one bit. But why would anyone who spends their working life finding ways to get through that barrier and communicate with people on behalf of a business want to make it even harder for people to trust what they read? Why would you trade the short term gain from opacity and obfuscation for the long term payoff of being able to help form an honest connection with customers for your clients? Every time you engage in misleading or vague or confusing tactics like native advertising, you’re making it that much harder on yourself to get through to your next potential target.
For brands, it can cost you your reputation
As a brand, do you want your name associated with what can feel like a scam? Do you want your name associated with advertising that is pretty blatantly designed to catch people sleeping and get in when their guard is down? I’m going to assume you don’t, because why would you? Same as with the above two scenarios, the short term payoff is not worth the long term cost to consumer perception of your brand. Developing long term relationships with customers is one of the most cost effective ways to grow and maintain your business, and no long term relationship is going to start with content that you tricked someone into seeing. Think strategically, with a long range view, and you’ll see why it’s best simply avoided.
The long term cost is simply too high for this type of native advertising to be a part of a business’ long term strategy. Use sponsored posts that still appear to be from you, use syndication services, trade links with other businesses — there are so many ways to use native advertising that are effective, ethical, and practical — but don’t lose sight of the true cost to your reputation if you engage in behavior that attempts to fool people. If you create interesting, useful content that isn’t just a veiled sales pitch, users will be drawn to it without the slight of hand of making it look like it’s editorial. As businesses and marketers, we can do better.