"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 All that's happened here is that a banner ad has been replaced by a logo and a text link.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.