Branded ContentThe hype machine for native advertising has had its dial set to maximum in recent months. If you’re not already familiar with native advertising, prepare to be confused, because by its very nature it’s something unique to each publisher who uses it. But, for the most part, it’s typically an ad or a piece of branded content that has been integrated into the publisher’s site in such a way that it appears similar if not identical to the rest of the content (although it will often be labelled as ‘sponsored’ or something along those lines).

The arguments in favour of native advertising are very similar to those we’ve heard in the past to make the case for social media and viral videos i.e. that it’s better to pull your audience to you instead of pushing ads and content to them. People visit websites because they want content, not ads, so why not present ads as content or have brands create content that’s genuinely appealing to consumers? It’s a seductive argument and one that often appeals to brands susceptible to the idea they’re part of a new advertising paradigm.

Except it isn’t a new paradigm. Native advertising is a new name for something we’ve seen before, known in print as classified ads/ advertorial/commercial features; in radio, going back as far as the 1930s, as soap operas; and online as viral videos/social video/sponsored content.

But just because it’s nothing new, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or can’t be improved this time around either. There’s little doubt that branded content can be a fantastic way to connect with an audience, and that it’s here to stay (bearing in mind it never left of course), but VAN believes it’s naive for anyone to believe that native video advertising is set to replace the pre and mid-roll. Here’s why (and please remember we’re talking primarily about branded video content here):

1. Native advertising is an attempt at a solution to display advertising’s problems, not video’s.

Display advertising has been suffering from problems with banner blindness, bot traffic, and declining click-rates (although larger ad units, improved transparency and better targeting are helping to improve matters in this area). So having ads that are integrated into the content makes sense. Facebook’s ads look pretty, albeit small and pretty, Twitter’s ads blend quite nicely into the Twitter stream, and Tumblr’s gif ads will in all likelihood work aesthetically and in terms of connecting with Tumblr’s users.

But banner blindness isn’t a problem for video  — you always get in front of a user with a pre-roll or mid-roll (or at least you do if there’s isn’t an option to skip the ad). If having an ad integrated into the content has as much value as advocates would have you believe, then having your ad play directly before immersed within content is already an outstanding advertising environment.

2. The myth of ‘non-interruptive’ advertising

It’s a myth that native advertising is ‘non-interruptive’. Think about it. When you’re scanning a page, you – like everyone else – want to be able to distinguish ads from the content. The very fact that banner blindness – which native advertising is often lauded as the solution to – exists in the first place bears testament to this.

So how is integrating an ad within the content – the real content – ‘non-interruptive’? Sure, you might have a better chance of catching the user’s eye my masquerading as the kind of content the user visited the site for, but please don’t say that that isn’t interruptive to the user’s experience. Blurring the lines between content and advertising is as interruptive as marketing gets, and, if anything, goes another step further than traditional advertising in terms of interrupting the user’s experience.

3. How often is ‘choice-based’ advertising actually choice-based?

Advocates of native advertising would look at point 1 above, and say that a user doesn’t want ads pushed at them. The idea is that you’re handing control to the user, and engaging with them on a deeper level by allowing them to choose to engage with your content. But if users are really choosing to view the content, why is the defining characteristic of native advertising the fact that it’s made to appear as if it’s part of the content?

Let’s think about how a piece of branded video content can be interpreted by a publisher’s visitor — there are three possibilities. Firstly, they might see that it is labelled as sponsored and choose to watch it. Let’s assume the content was high quality, relevant and enjoyed by the visitor, so the publisher and advertiser win. Secondly, they might not notice the fact that it’s sponsored and watch it. Thirdly, they might not click on it at all.

While advocates of native advertising are keen to talk about the first group, the choosers, the accidental clickers and the ignorers rarely get a look-in. But those groups are important sets of people. For instance, the people who don’t notice the content is sponsored could feel misled by the publisher, the advertiser, or both. Or they mightn’t notice the content was sponsored and mistake it for publisher content with heavy product placement (not all branded content is labelled as well as it could be). And even if they don’t, is it fair for an advertiser to pay a premium for a ‘choice-based’ ad that actually had more in common with an accidental mobile click?

On the third group of people, those who choose not to look at sponsored content, it’s important to ask who these people are? What type of person never clicks on sponsored content, and are they more likely to be more or less desirable to advertisers? And if they never use sponsored content, how would an advertiser ever reach them with choice-based branded content?

 4. At what cost to the publisher’s credibility and premium inventory?

Just about every publisher can get away with a certain amount of branded content in small doses. But there’s a limit. Let’s look at TV. If you imagine a spectrum, where at one end you have the ad-free BBC, and at the other you have the Shopping Channel. There’s a point, somewhere along that line, where you start to look more like The Shopping Channel.

Now, that mightn’t be too much of a problem for many publishers, particularly those who focus more on gaming SEO and social media than they do on producing quality content – and good luck to anyone who can build a sustainable business by doing so. But it could be problematic for a publisher who also wishes to sell quality inventory to top tier brands. Context still matters and branded content can dilute the value of the context you’re offering your non-native advertisers. Seller beware.

5. Branded content will never be a match for content that isn’t selling you something.

Sorry, but it just won’t. The constraints of being brand safe and reflecting a brand’s values will in most cases restrict creativity, resulting in a lamer piece of content than that which isn’t trying to deliver a company’s message. No matter how subtle that message is.

6. Video needs to be delivering more reach and scale, not less.

While it has many advantages over TV, particularly around targeting, interactivity and data integration, video advertising still isn’t on a par with TV when it comes to deliver reach and scale. Major brands often aim – or, if they’re to remain competitive, need – to reach consumers a few times a day/week/month, not just on that one time when a person looked up a recipe or decided to consume some of their content. Sure, it’s worthwhile to reach people by those means too, but it’s ridiculous to suggest brands can remain competitive by branded content alone.

Even with standardised digital advertising, brand advertisers complain about the problems with workflow and fragmentation online (great piece on Exchangewire on that very topic here).

7. Repetition isn’t always such a bad thing and is often desirable

When brands advertise on TV, they know all too well you’ll see their ad time and time again. They also know that – up to a point – this helps reinforce the brand message. You might learn to remember the theme tune, become familiar with the ad’s characters, or notice something you missed in the ad first time around. With branded content, the vast majority of the time you’re going get once shot at someone seeing your +£100k piece of content. Frequency dies.



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  • Smooth Operator

    Fact: digital has an issue with declining CTRs and it has to confront the problem. Native advertising is one way of doing that if we’re going to keep delivering performance for advertisers.

    • Vincent, VAN Editor

      Okay, a couple of points in response to the question of CTRs:

      1. CTRs aren’t much a problem for anyone other than performance-minded display advertisers. In video clicks are looked at, but aren’t ever the main aim with brand campaigns. Nor should they ever be.

      2. Nobody ever clicked on a TV ad, but we know TV ads work because people see them. It doesn’t require a huge amount of imagination to realise the same happens with video.

      3. Tricking users into clicking or incorporating ugly ‘click here’ calls to action on video creatives aren’t a solution to anything and will do little to deliver on brand KPIs like recall and awareness.

      • Noam

        When you say “TV ads work” – you are actually saying “TV ads used to work for decades, there is no reason for them not to work now”.

        But you are ignoring hard data about gen Y watching habits and internet usage habits, the % of kids that activates “AdBlock” minutes after activating their new MacBook pro and much more.