Don't Ruin the Web: Two Rules for Responsible Native Advertising

"Native Advertising" is a fancy way of saying "advertising that masquerades as content." The buzzword itself has been steadily growing in popularity in the web-marketing world since it evolved away from its less dressed-up cousin: "sponsored content." Comedian John Oliver, of course, gave the term a swift kick in the pants on his show Last Week Tonight when he gave it some high-profile attention -- instantly boosting both the popularity of the buzzword and the criticism of the practice.

The practice of Native Advertising was born out of necessity. Banner ads, pop-ups, sidebar videos, slide-ins, and all other forms of interruption marketing on the web are not effective. As I've explained in other posts, users either block them out technologically with free browser add-ons or simply ignore them visually. (This is something we've known about FOR A LONG TIME, as this Nielsen article from 2007 makes clear, but due to a lack of better options, the web is still plastered with these pesky buggers.) Users simply do not respond well to interruption. Hence, Native Advertising -- selling an advertiser space within your content stream where it blends in -- is taking off.

Like any tool, Native Advertising is neither good nor bad in itself. The manner in which Native Advertising is used determines whether or not it is a force for good or an instrument of evil.

John Oliver is right, Native Advertising blurs the line between content and advertising -- and therefore it has the potential to discredit a publication's integrity (assuming the publication has some integrity). So I see how it could break down all advertising/real-content barriers and ruin everything. (AKA We'd all be reading pitches from marketers all the time.)

However, Native Advertising, if done correctly, could be a revolutionary tool that will vastly improve the quality of both publications and advertising online. This is why I support the responsible and judicious use of Native Advertising.

So, in an effort to guide publications down the path of goodness, I offer the following rules for responsible Native Advertising practices:
  1. All native advertisements must be clearly and obviously marked as advertisements in some way. (I prefer the terms "sponsored content" or "sponsored article" for reasons that will become obvious in the next rule.)
  2. All native advertisements must be ACTUAL CONTENT that offers value to a publication's specific audience. For example, a native advertisement in a fly-fishing publication from a fly-fishing company rating its own top five selling fishing rods is crap. But, a native advertisement from the same company in the same publication that teaches the readers how to tie an effective fly is perfect -- it hits the sweet spot of native advertising.
All native advertisements should pass three tests before going live. A publisher should ask him or herself:
  1. Would we publish this if we hadn't been paid to do so?
  2. Does the promise of the value offered in the advertisement outweigh a reader's aversion to reading anything marked "advertisement?" (i.e. Will someone click it?)
  3. Does it deliver that value?
Imagine this: a web without interruption where companies pay publications for space they can use to build name recognition by helping readers achieve their goals.

It's ambitious, I know. But it's a web I dream about and hope you do too.

J.S. McDougall is a partner at zeen101.