Native advertising: you can’t rent your credibility, you can only sell it

Sell or rent?You may have heard that lots of publications are having a hard time figuring out how to make money online. It’s true; even though we’ve been at this Web thing now for twenty years, publishers still haven’t figured out a reliable way to turn large audiences into enough money to keep the lights on. So they’re understandably spooked — and ready to jump on any new approach that looks like it might solve the problem for them. And the new approach of the moment, the official New Hotness in the advertising world, is something called “native advertising.

Why are publishers and advertisers excited about native advertising? Because, to put it crudely, people don’t look at regular ads anymore, but do look at “native” ones. Which makes them exciting for advertisers, who are, after all, trying to get people to look at their message. And that makes them exciting for publishers, since you can sell an ad that people are likely to look at for much more money than one that people are going to skip.

But what is it about “native” ads that make them perform better than old-fashioned banners and the like? What is the native advertiser’s secret sauce? The answer is simple: native ads don’t look like ads. They look like content.

As with many new things, it can be difficult to pin down an exact definition of what native advertising is. One attempt goes like this:

Native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.

What this means in plain English is simple: it’s an ad that looks like (“follows the natural form and function of the user experience”) something other than an ad.

So if it doesn’t look like an ad, what does it look like? Well, publications are really made up of only two things: ads and content. So if it doesn’t look like an ad, there’s only one thing left for it to look like: your content. Like something you wrote. Something you endorse.

This has already bitten people. The folks at The Atlantic, for instance, found it out the hard way when they sold a “native advertising” package to the Church of Scientology, which proceeded to use it to run a great big story about how awesome Scientology is — all on a page that looked more or less like any other Atlantic page. The magazine inserted a little box on the page to inform the reader that what they were reading was sponsored content rather than their own editorial content, but understandably, lots of people missed it.

And this gets to the heart of the problem. The reason native advertising works is because readers don’t understand that it is advertising. It looks like editorial content, so they give it the same attention they give editorial content. Which, since advertising is inevitably slanted and one-sided, can only have two outcomes: either they eventually realize the bait-and-switch you’ve pulled and get angry with you for pulling it, or they don’t realize it and think that you’ve sold out your editorial objectivity.

Neither of these outcomes is great for your publication’s reputation.

The basic trade-off native advertising wants to make is simple. You, as the publisher of a publication, have a brand identity that has some degree of credibility as a purveyor of unbiased information. Advertisements that look like unbiased information get clicked. So the advertisers want, essentially, to rent your brand in order to wrap their pitch in your credibility.

But the thing about credibility is, it can’t be rented. Once you trade some amount of it for money, you can never really get it back. It’s gone. You have sold it. And eventually, after you’ve sold enough of it, you will inevitably run out.

This is not a theoretical process; we can watch it happen before our eyes in real time. Take, for example, one of the pioneers of native advertising, Forbes magazine. Forbes has turned its web site from an old-fashioned publication where ads and editorial are strictly segregated to a brave new model where they’re effectively indistinguishable. When you read an article on Forbes.com, it might be written by Forbes staff, or by a “community contributor,” or an advertiser. It’s on you to look for the little blurbs that indicate which is which. And if you miss them, and happen to think that an advertiser’s message is actually editorial content… well, you’ve made an advertiser very happy.

This creates serious tension between the interests of the publication and the interests of the reader. The less clearly the provenance of the story is disclosed — the tinier and easier to miss those disclaimers become — the more lucrative the ad slot becomes, because the whole point of the exercise is to confuse editorial and advertising. The less you foster that confusion, the less advertisers will be willing to pay you. But the more you foster it, the faster you deplete the store of value in your brand.

Forbes has made quite a bit of money with this approach. But what they’ve also done, for me at least, is demolish the credibility of Forbes as a brand. I can no longer tell at a glance when someone sends me a link to a Forbes.com story, whether that story is editorial content or an ad. So I retreat into a defensive crouch and assume that anything I read on Forbes.com is a sales pitch until I see some compelling proof that it isn’t.

Compare that reaction to, say, how I react when sent a page from NYTimes.com. I tend to trust those links, because I know that the New York Times logo indicates that the story has gone through an editorial vetting process. The success of that process may vary, but I can at minimum be sure that one thing the story definitely is not is an advertisement. (The only exception would be opinion pieces, but those are segregated from news content in their own section.) The Forbes logo, by contrast, has been degraded in value so successfully that today it basically means nothing. It’s certainly not a mark of quality, or accuracy, or trust. It’s just an umbrella under which vendors hawk their wares.

And since credibility can only be sold, not rented, that loss of institutional credibility would be hard to reverse if Forbes should ever decide they want to do so. They’re successfully training a generation of readers that the Forbes name and logo don’t provide any guarantees to the reader. Even if they were to suddenly stop the native ads and go back to clearly dividing ads and editorial, the impression that Forbes can’t by default be trusted will linger in that generation’s minds for years, maybe decades. They’d have to earn that trust — trust that they painstakingly built up over nearly one hundred years of publication — back again, from scratch.

So, as publications rush to embrace native advertising as the future, I write to add one small voice urging them not to. It is eating your seed corn; it is mortgaging your future; it is suicide. A publication whose audience does not trust it to deal with them clearly and honestly will, eventually, lose that audience. It may take a while, and you may be able to make a great deal of money fooling them in the meantime. But eventually they will wise up, and what will you be left with, then?

Nothing. You will be left with nothing. Because you will have sold everything. And once it’s sold, it’s never coming back.


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