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Native Advertising Is Toxic

Posted on Friday, August 30, 2019 at 6:56 PM

Native advertising is a compelling revenue stream, but there are major drawbacks for publishers who use it.

By William Dunkerley

Interest in native advertising is booming.

So is interest in recreational opioids.

You may think there's no parallel here. But there is. In both cases you see what may appear to be a short-term reward. But you'll end up with an undesirable price to pay in the long run.

It's pretty clear from the mainstream press what that price is for the recreational opioid users. It affects not only the individual users, but the public health and safety as well.

What's the Downside of Native Advertising?

We don't yet have enough experience with native advertising to actually have felt the long-term detriment. Therefore we must rely upon analysis to give us a look into a likely future. But I fear a lot of publishers may not be concerned enough to look those prospects in the eye.

Thus my argument against native advertising will likely be an unpopular one. After all, many advertisers are clamoring for it. That makes them an easier sell for the sales staffs. Publishers who are experiencing declining sales with display advertising often see native advertising as a bright new hope. Nevertheless, the practice of running native ads can be problematic.

Here's the Downside

It comes down to integrity. That's the quality that gives magazine publishers an advantage over the plethora of competing information that permeates the internet. A distinguishing quality of most magazines is that their content is devoted to readers' interests. That promotes reader trust and reader loyalty. Without integrity it may be hard for consumers to perceive the distinct value of our content in the face of competing sources.

In the pre-internet era, magazines enjoyed a near monopoly on curated periodic information. We were the go-to place for information, news, or entertainment in a given area of interest. If you wanted a weekly news summary, there was a selection of magazines that could supply it. If you were interested in plumbing, there were magazines for you. If you wanted to keep up with the latest fashion trends, there were magazines that provided that service.

Now, however, a few things have changed. And they all work against the magazine publisher.

New Challenges

First is the availability of the desired content from a multitude of sources. More than ever before. Many of them are free and easily accessed. Good-bye, near monopoly, here.

Second is that search puts all that at the reader's fingertips in an instant. There's no waiting for the next issue to appear. Instant gratification is there for the asking. Good-bye, near monopoly, here too.

Third is the matter of curation. When we plan an editorial calendar and when we plan the next issue, we're performing a service for our readers. We're aggregating an audience that shares to some extent a common interest. And we're producing content specifically to satisfy readers' interests. That's quite a benefit. We may still have some uniqueness here.

As an analogy, think about museums. They curate too. You can go to a science museum, an art museum, a history museum, and so on. Think how inconvenient it would be if all exhibits were randomly distributed around one huge, enormous building. That would be quite off-putting for many people.

We're different from physical museums in an important way. Digitally we don't take up physical space. And even in terms of print publications, we're more compact than a public library.

Does that mean we still have a near-monopoly advantage in so far as curation? Unfortunately it does not.

Search gives users the opportunity to self-curate, even if it is quite imperfect. The main limitation is that given today's state-of-the-art algorithims, search results are pretty cluttered. That's because what may seem relevant to a search engine algorithm may be way off target for humans. Some results may lead to sites intended to deceive you, perhaps maliciously. And now we also have to contend with political/ideological/business biases introduced by the IT giants.

Those limitations would seem to still give us an advantage in curation. But the story does not stop there. New online technologies promise to give users more and more options to customize their online experiences. Ultimately that will lead to consumers being provided effortlessly with content more precisely targeted to their own interests, lifestyles, location, and financial status. This means we'll be losing our advantage as curators.

What's Left to Make Us Stand Out?

It's our integrity and dedication to the needs and interests of our readers. But how does that relate to native advertising?

The plain truth is that native advertising is intended to blur a line. It's the demarcation between content developed by editors for their readers and the messages of advertisers. Ad content's primary objective is to serve the advertisers' needs. That goal differs from good editorial content that focuses on reader needs.

A lot of people go to great lengths to describe euphemistically this blurring and make excuses for it. But the fact remains that an objective of native advertising is to make ads look more like editorial content.

It's hard to believe that the blurring won't lead to readers concluding that our content, as a whole, isn't there to serve them exclusively.

That's what's toxic about native advertising. It has the potential to diminish reader trust in our integrity and editorial judgment.

Going Forward

Just why advertisers are clamoring for native advertising is another story for another time. For now, though, it's important to understand that it portends untoward consequences for publishers that are accepting it.

Recently Association Media and Publishing presented the results of a mini survey on this topic. The survey asked, "How does your organization feel about native or sponsored content?" Here are the results:

Publisher attitudes toward native advertising.

This shows that these publishers recognize the downside of native advertising. That's a good start.

The next step is to come up with strategies for dealing with advertisers that are hungry for sponsored content opportunities. We'll delve into that in a future issue.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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