Facebook recently started labelling stories from The Onion as ‘satire’ to help its more gullible readers recognise a joke when it’s coming at them. (Apparently headlines like ‘Meerkats have dark, sinister side’ can be open to serious interpretation). But how clearly labelled should brand stories be online, particularly native advertising pieces placed by brands to look uncannily similar to main editorial content?
In comparison with the traditional way of monetising online content – the display banner – native advertising is undoubtedly more preferable. It makes for a richer overall experience when a brand looks to craft its message into an interesting story, rather than just shouting at the audience from the sidelines.
In theory native advertising works just fine – the audience gets a piece of content that is interesting or entertaining; and the brand gets to borrow their attention for a moment. It’s a value exchange as old as TV sponsorship - the idea of inviting yourself into someone’s home as a wanted guest. It’s the same knowing agreement that fuels product placement on TV shows, and the modern consumer is media savvy enough to recognise the hallmarks of a commercial agreement manifested on their favourite show.
Where this gets more troubling online is the increasing similarity between editorial content and sponsored content. A virtue when you have brands like Natwest creating fun stories for Buzzfeed, but less so when the audience can find themselves reading a serious story on a supposedly independent media site without realising it’s actually a sponsored story. It’s one thing to masquerade as genuine editorial when it’s a sponsored listicle, but when the topic is healthcare, or energy conservation, or financial advice, there is a much greater premium on ensuring credibility and independence.
With diminishing revenues for online journalism, the fact that 100% of Buzzfeed revenue comes from sponsored content makes this a very attractive model. But it’s a model that suits its stories – you don’t demand editorial independence in ‘A list of 10 cats that look like Rhianna’, and therefore you don’t care if that story is brought to you by Whiskas. The problem is mainstream media is increasingly looking to the likes of Buzzfeed to copy their revenue structure and that risks jeopardising the independence of the news.
This Friskies-sponsored Buzzfeed content has received more than 15m views
Media outlets will claim that those stories are clearly labelled as sponsored content, but that’s questionable as they have been designed, written, and structured to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding stories. A small caveat at the top of a story can be easy to miss, particularly when it’s called a ‘partnership’ and the font is at 50%. Studies have shown that less than half of all viewers recognise that these stories are not real news, so clearly the labelling isn’t clear enough.
The idea of advertisers creating desirable, interesting content is to be applauded and welcomed as an alternative to blunt sales messages. It’s a great opportunity, and would be a shame to have this undermined by seeming deception, reinforcing perceptions of advertisers as shifty blaggers not to be trusted.
As brands we should be transparent, be explicit; make it clear where a story comes from and that your brand stands by it. Your story will be all the more trustworthy for it, as by extension, will your brand.
*This article was originally published by The Wall.