"Banner ads suck," says conventional wisdom. You'd have a hard time finding anyone who disagrees with that statement, but that doesn't mean we should replace them with something worse just because its not a banner.
Native advertising has been heralded as the latest white knight of digital advertising, here to save us from ineffectual banners. Never mind that the heralders all happen to be people selling native ads. But this brings up a new question: Who is holding native advertisers accountable for quality?
A veritable industry has grown up around the need to study the relative suck-itude of banners, the bedrock of the digital advertising. IAB standards have been written. Verification technologies have been developed. Attribution platforms are being rushed to market.
It's been nineteen years since the first banner ad ran on the web. Pathetically, it's taken us nearly two decades for advertisers to demand accountability and intelligent measurement in the medium. As native advertising sets to scale, are we going to sit with wool over our eyes for a decade or so again?
The truth is much about native ads does suck too.
Irrelevance is not quality
Buzzfeed is the loudest chest-thumper in the native advertising arena. In a keynote speech at this year's SXSW, CEO Jonah Peretti criticized banners as a medium that "do not tell a compelling story." Native ads, he argued, are much more compelling.
The problem is not how compelling they are, however. The problem is that they are often completely irrelevant to the brand. A random visit to buzzfeed.com showed a prominently positioned article on "20 Things We Can Only Learn From Dads." In truth, I find this article compelling. After all, I'm a dad. There's probably a clever joke in here that I can relate to.
But this is an ad for Virgin Mobile. Just what does this content have to do with Virgin Mobile? Beats the shit out of me. I'm not visiting the page because I have any interest in Virgin Mobile. How is this different than a banner ad next to any other piece of compelling content on the web I happen to go to? All that's happened here is that a banner ad has been replaced by a logo and a text link.
To be fair, not all native ads are utterly devoid of relevance. A Buzzfeed ad for Miller64 beer whose campaign line is "Go out. Go Play," has stories about roller derby, kickball and playing with your dog. This is on strategy. A recent sponsored story on The Atlantic's business site Quartz from Adobe called "How encrypted video is redefining the mobile experience" is of genuine interest.
But if you're not going to have relevant content with your native ads, you might as well buy banners.
Tricking users is not quality
Another of the leading proponents of "native" advertising is Dan Greenberg from Sharethrough. In a recent blog post he writes, "interruptive, out of touch ads just won't last forever." Perhaps. Dan goes on to explain, "…Brands must deliver content that creates value for users, not tricky ads that surprise users when they're clicked on." Absolutely.
Yet, my agency received screenshots when we ran a campaign on Sharethrough of a video ad at the end of a blog post on thoughtcatalog.com that is not identified as an ad at all. The 9%, engagement rates were great, but is it great for my clients' brand when a user clicks on a video they think is content only to find out it's actually an ad? And this in one of the screenshots they sent us. Personally, I'd classify this as a "tricky ad."
Again, in fairness, the other screenshots they sent were clearly identifiable as ads. But just as brands have a right to expect that the banners they buy are "above the fold" actual impressions, buyers have a right to expect that when they are promised that their ads won't trick users, their ads won't trick users. There should be accountability.
Fuzzy math is not quality
Digital advertising is plagued by imperfect measurement. The "click-through rate" or CTR is used by advertisers, not because it is particularly meaningful, but because it's very easy to measure. Things like sales impact are more difficult.
Peretti is a smart guy, so I'm pretty sure he knows this. Yet, he's quick to boast that BuzzFeed's "story units" have 1-2% CTRs—"some 10-times industry average." That would be a very impressive statistic if it actually meant anything, but it's not meaningful at all.
Hardly anyone ever clicks on banner ads. However, those who do are expressing a genuine interest in the brand. Enough of those clickers may even convert to sales to generate positive ROI. Yes, you might say, but that's direct response—not advertising. Except we are talking about CTR which is a direct response metric.
If we were talking about direct response, Buzzfeed's 1-2% CTR would be amazing, but it's not. I'm clicking because I'm interested in a piece of content which may or may not have any relevancy to the brand. A more apples-to-apples comparison to banner ads might be how many people clicked on Virgin Mobile's logo after they read "20 Things We Can Only Learn From Dads." I suspect the answer is not 1-2%.
Native needs rigor, too
As an agency job, my clients come to me with a goal and a pile of money. It's my job to tell them the best way to spend that money to achieve that goal. If we can leverage opportunities to be more integrated into website experiences, that is simply fantastic. Native advertising allows me to do that.
But it's also my responsibility to separate the hype from the fiction and to demand a level of quality from the partners we use to reach our customers. You should too.