Native advertising: 12 fascinating examples of good and bad practice

You’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click a banner ad.

That’s my favourite stat of 2013, thanks to Solve Media.

Faith in traditional digital display advertising is fast decreasing, with many experts believing that banner ads just don’t work. 60% of consumers do not remember the last display ad they saw, according to Online Media Daily.

Display ads don’t work because we’ve become used to ignoring them. They used to be an annoyance; a creatively barren distraction, but now we’ve trained ourselves, almost subconsciously, to glance down a webpage and not even notice them. 

Mobile banner ads are far more insidious and harder to ignore. According to GoldSpot Media, up to 50% of clicks on mobile ads are accidental.

So what’s the alternative?

I wrote an introduction to the world of native advertising last November in which I discuss the various merits or otherwise of this content driven approach to advertising.

Here I’ll be presenting examples of this much argued-over marketing trend, and trying to ascertain whether there is any good or bad practice to be gleaned from the more popular native ads hosted on publisher’s sites.

In part for this article I’ll be taking a look at the Native Ad Leaderboard, a collaboration between SimpleReach and Sharethrough. This is a list of the top 25 examples of native advertising placed on various publisher’s sites over the last 18 months.

The number one native ad from Mini USA accrued 1.3m social actions over approximately 16 months.

However as the majority of these ads have been placed on sites like Buzzfeed and other highly popular publishing sites, these ads can therefore be considered as evergreen; bringing in a moderate amount of traffic but over a much longer period of time, perhaps even the length of the site’s existence, therefore creating a much higher value for the brand than traditional display ads.

Buzzfeed

It appears that 17 of the 25 ads on Native Ad Leaderboard are hosted on Buzzfeed. Perhaps unsurprising as its revenue is entirely dependent on native advertising, and brands can easily integrate with its simple content model.

Here are some of Buzzfeed’s most popular pieces of sponsored content.

Mini USA

I’m not a huge fan of the clumsy headline. I realise ‘not normal’ is part of Mini’s branding but it still doesn’t scan properly, and from an SEO point of view there are surely better headline options.

The lack of copy underneath each photograph also smacks of laziness, however this native ad placed on Buzzfeed in October 2012 has achieved 1.3m social interactions and sits comfortably at the top of the Leaderboard.

Pepsi NEXT

This sponsored content from Pepsi is an improvement, containing as it does actual copy and some genuinely arresting images that benefit from overlarge, high-definition photography.

This is the second most sociable native ad on Buzzfeed, accruing 1m interactions. However this was published in May 2012, so it’s taken more than 19 months to achieve this.

Harper Collins

Only having been published in August 2013 and already achieving 717,990 social interactions including 91,000 shares on Facebook, this is likely to overtake Pepsi NEXT and Mini USA as top native ad in 2014. 

However, as successful we can say these sponsored posts are, they are a long way off matching the most viral non-sponsored Buzzzfeed posts.

Up to June 2013, these are the most popular Buzzfeed posts, according to Media Shower:

  • 21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity (June 2012) – 13.3m views.
  • 45 most powerful images of 2011 (December 2011) – 12.1m views.
  • 50 people you wish you knew in real life (April 2012) – 11.5m views.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about these top three posts is the absence of snark or cynicism contained within. In fact they’re nothing but life-affirming and extraordinarily good-willed. It’s very difficult to argue with so much positivity. 

Would a brand get away with such unbridled mawkishness? Probably not. I think it would be hard to see past the sheer manipulation of it. This recent advert from Coca-Cola was difficult enough to swallow in terms of unearned sentiment.

Cracked

Buzzfeed isn’t the only listicle based pop-culture publisher to get in on the native advertising game.

Cracked, the Mad Magazine-style humour publication, has been running native adverts since 2008. The difference between Cracked and other publishers though is that Cracked doesn’t silo its editorial team from its advertorial team.

Brands work directly with Cracked to create sponsored content, written by its own eight-person editorial team.

Cracked is owned by Demand, and Michael Dossett, the head of its market strategy team, had this to say to say regarding its editorial content.

[the editors] don’t feel compromised because they are creating fundamentally awesome content. It just happens to be in partnership with a brand that aligns with what they care about. The content we create for brands must be relentlessly interesting, shareable, unique, funny, entertaining, and we make sure that every piece of content meets that standard.

According to Digiday, Virgin Media asked Cracked directly to create content in the Cracked ‘voice’ for a series of collaborations in late 2012.

The most popular collaborations are as follows:

This has achieved 1.2m views and 3,000 Facebook likes since September 2012

This has achieved 1.3m views and 10,000 likes since September 2012.

This has achieved 1.1m views and 2,600 likes since November 2012.

Perhaps what stands these native ads out from rival publisher’s sponsored content is the quality of content itself.

I’m not saying that the ‘weird sex lives of dead US presidents’ is the most socially worthwhile article, but it’s entertaining, funny and written in the same tone of voice as non-sponsored articles, by the actual Cracked writing staff.

Also the amount of content to read in these articles could put the likes of Buzzfeed to shame.

There is one fundamental thing that Buzzfeed does get right over Cracked when it comes to native advertising. On Buzzfeed the reader knows it’s a native ad right from the start of the article.

There’s no doubt it’s sponsored, it says Virgin Mobile in two different places before you even get to the content.

With a Virgin Mobile sponsored article from Cracked though, the reader has to get through two whole pages of text (approximately nine folds per page) before they get to the sole evidence this is sponsored content.

The Virgin link is hidden between the author’s own social media handles and further recommended articles from Cracked. 

This is the current advice from the IAB regarding disclosure of sponsored content:

Perhaps Cracked believes that as these articles sit so comfortably within its own content model, it doesn’t need to be as explicit as the guidelines suggest. Perhaps this content would have been produced anyway, even without brand sponsorship.

For Cracked perhaps the difference between editorial and advertising doesn’t matter, because it’s not creating the serious investigative journalism other publications offer.

Chances are you’ll probably read ‘Five unexpectedly perverted tourist attractions’ with the same expectations whether it was sponsored content or not.

But what happens when the publisher is a serious news channel and native advertising goes wrong?

The Atlantic 

Patricio Robles covered this hard-learnt lesson for The Atlantic in his article ‘The Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial shows the risks of native ads‘, but it’s worth mentioning briefly here.

In January 2013, The Atlantic ran the above advertorial extolling the ‘milestone’ year The Church of Scientology experienced in 2012. Understandable controversy ensued.  

At the time, The Atlantic’s native advertising guidelines read:

Sponsored Content is created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content. 

As Patricio points out:

It’s safe to say that the sponsored content was professionally created and time taken to prepare it for publication. In other words, it’s inconceivable that The Atlantic hadn’t reviewed the advertorial before it went live. The real problem: the internet noticed it.

Digital advertising accounts for 59% of The Atlantic’s revenue, although it’s unclear how much of that comes from native advertising. What is clear in the Scientology advertorial is just how out-of-character the piece is with the rest of The Atlantic’s non-sponsored content

Forgetting the controversial nature of Scientology itself, anger was driven largely because of The Atlantic’s ignorance as to what its core audience would find interesting, or take seriously.

CNN’s Ian Schafer makes an excellent point about how The Atlantic should have approached this situation in the first place.

[The Atlantic] should have worked more closely with the Church of Scientology to help create a piece of content that wasn’t so clearly written as an ad. If the Church of Scientology was not willing to compromise its advertising to be better content, then The Atlantic should not have accepted the advertising.

It has also been speculated that The Atlantic marketing team spent time ‘pruning’ the comments underneath the article in order to leave only the most positive responses. If true, this is deeply unethical, and could have easily been avoided by merely disabling the comments

However, if it wasn’t for this controversy, we wouldn’t have enjoyed this almost immediate response article from The Onion.

Here are a few more good and bad practice examples of native advertising to be found on other publisher’s sites that I’ve yet to mention. 

Funny or Die

Here’s a piece of video content sponsored by Under Armour on the Will Ferrell co-founded comedy site Funny or Die.

It clearly states that it is sponsored by Under Armour, with links to its own video channel, and the video itself fits the comedic tone of the rest of the site. The video achieved 2m views.

Forbes

This native ad, published under the BrandVoice banner, clearly indicates this is written by a third party, but content-wise fits in perfectly with the Forbes model.

The BrandVoice initiative suggests that SAP, an enterprise software corporation, has been vetted by Forbes and is therefore considered a trusted partner. 

Mashable

According to the sources I’ve checked the following article, published by Mashable in March 2012, is a piece content sponsored by Purina.

If you can tell me where this information is stated on the above article I’d be very grateful.

With the New York Times launching a redesign of its website on 8 January 2014, replete with responsive design and yes, native advertising, it seems like 2014 will bring this marketing trend to larger, even more mainstream publishing sites. It will be interesting to see who follows.

For more information on native advertising, read the three main approaches to native advertising and native advertising: what content marketers need to know.

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Native advertising: 12 fascinating examples of good and bad practice

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