Four Epic Native Advertising Fails

Rebecca Lieb's picture

As a research analyst, I just completed a study of native advertising. The report, based on months of research and dozens of interviews, contains eight critical recommendations for successful native advertising campaigns.

We help our clients incorporate these recommendations in their native advertising strategies. What happens when best practices and tried-and-true practices are disregarded or ignored? That’s what iMedia’s editors asked me to share in this article. Not for the sake of schadenfreude really, but as a set of object lessons. So let’s take a look at a handful of native advertising fails and also map them to the whys of their shortcomings.

Best practices matter in native advertising a lot, and soon they’ll matter even more. Recently, 73 percent of Online Publishers Association members said they offer some form of digital advertising, a number that is swelling daily. Spending in the sector is expected to swell to $4.57 billion by 2017, though that’s a figure that bears some scrutiny, given “native advertising” does not yet bear the distinction of a formal, much less universally-agreed upon, definition.

Nonetheless, if we can agree that native advertising is a form of converged media (regardless of whether it appears on a publisher site or a social platform) that combines paid media (i.e., an ad) with owned media (i.e., content that isn’t “advertising-y” in nature), best practices and success elements do begin to emerge.

Trust and transparency

The Atlantic-Scientology debacle is the poster child of native advertising gone horribly — no, hideously — wrong. Under a small-ish “Sponsor Content” box, the site published a sunny and upbeat piece about the extremely controversial leader of the Church of Scientology: “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” An uproar ensued, causing the piece to be taken down in short order, and an apology was issued. In short order The Onion followed up with “SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement.”

In a further apology issued the following day, The Atlantic stated, “We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.”

What’s a best practice in this area? Disclosure, transparency, and trust are non-negotiable. Period. And come on, we’ve danced this dance more than once: With search engine advertising, paid blogging, and word-of-mouth marketing. Do we really even need to have this conversation? Disclose to readers that it’s a paid placement. Link to the relevant editorial policy. Create a channel for inquiry.

There. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?

Strange bedfellows

The Economist teamed up with Buzzfeed to create a promotional listicle entitled “Dare2GoDeep,” the stories behind the venerable publications’ serious hard news and policy coverage. The piece, and indeed, the pairing, was widely mocked as “inane” and “cringeworthy.” It is kind of hard to draw the line between one of the world’s most respected news magazines and a website known for its lists of all things LOL and feline.

Sales-y

At the heart of native advertising is content marketing, which is soft, not hard, sell. Last holiday season, “A Gift Guide for Surviving Your Family at Home This Holiday” on Gawker Media read more shill than article. The body copy doesn’t really deliver on the headline’s promise, which feels bait-and-switch.

Collaboration and earned media

I hate to single out Buzzfeed again (the publication does so much native advertising so very well), but last August the site was involved in an imbroglio that should have been nipped in the bud rather than allowed to spiral into scandal. A conservative anti-abortion group published its own listicle bashing Planned Parenthood in Buzzfeed’s then-new community section. The post violated Buzzfeed’s community guidelines, yet it wasn’t immediately taken down, causing a media, as well as social media, fallout. The Guardian followed up: “BuzzFeed is taking trolling to a new level by pandering to right-wing nuts.”

Please read the rest of this post on iMedia, where it originally published.

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Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca Lieb is a strategic advisor, consultant, research analyst, keynote speaker, author, and columnist.

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