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Media critics have long denounced sponsored content -- articles paid for by advertisers that look like real journalism -- which they say blurs the line between advertising and editorial. Marketers, meanwhile, love having smart, engaged consumers reading these "branded" stories that bolster the bottom lines of publishers everywhere from Mashable and Buzzfeed to the online editions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
As it turns out, the critics might not be the only ones concerned: Slightly more than half of consumers don't trust sponsored content, now often called native advertising, and 59% believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles paid for by a brand, according to a study released Wednesday by content marketing startup Contently. And two-thirds of respondents said they are less likely to click on a branded article than on the site's regular editorial product.
That's an interesting finding in light of publishers' repeated assertion that readers often click on their native ads more than their editorial.
Contently, which produces content for brands, surveyed 542 U.S. readers of different ages and educational levels, and also found that only about half were clear about exactly what "sponsored content" was.
Among the survey's other findings: The more educated the consumers, the more likely they were to say they felt deceived when they realized a piece of content had been sponsored by a brand. And majorities of both millennials and Baby Boomers -- the age span of respondents was 18 to 65 -- agreed that they preferred banner ads to sponsored articles.
Of course publishers have found that readers also gaze straight past banner ads, precisely the phenomenon that has encouraged the shift into native ads.
And readers don't always trust editorial content either, the report suggested. "And yet," the report said, "respondents rated branded content as more trustworthy than Fox News, and nearly equally trustworthy as MSNBC, indicating that content has a mistrust problem overall."
Though most of the content produced by Contently's army of freelancers is destined for brand sites, not news sites, the company might still be considered an odd source for a study critical of the advertorial concept. But apart from the report being a bit of content marketing itself, Contently would like to see improvements in the branded genre.
"Part of what we try to do, in an effort to be credible brand publishers ourselves, is take a skeptical look at the marketing landscape," said co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Shane Snow. "We do ourselves a disservice if we pretend things are great when they're not."
Aside from making it absolutely clear which content on a site is sponsored and what that means, Mr. Snow said the way to build trust with readers is to publish better branded articles.
"Brands need to do sponsored content that people don't just tolerate but actually enjoy," he said.
~ Matt Flamm is a senior reporter for Crain's New York Business. ~