Why we need directions for going native

Native advertising already accounts for more than a fifth of digital display ads, yet there's still a lot of uncertainty that needs clearing up if it is to avoid consumer mistrust, warns the IAB's Clare O'Brien.

Clare O'Brien: senior industry programmes manager at IAB UK
Clare O'Brien: senior industry programmes manager at IAB UK

Native advertising is a term with many different perspectives and definitions. There are as many media owners embracing the term native as there are banning it from their sales lexicon.

On one hand it's used to define the type of partnership between media owners and advertisers that's long been the bedrock of great marketing and strong industry practice.

On the other hand, native is being used to coin an entirely new form of digital ad inventory that delivers content-based audience engagement through formats that can aggregate both content and audience behaviour.

Scratching the surface, Outbrain's discovery engine is a typical example. There's AdYouLike and Sharethrough's in-feed solutions enabling brands (and publishers) to distribute content-based ads at scale across multiple platforms.

Digital publishers, such as Yahoo, Facebook and Buzzfeed, distribute ad units programmatically within news and content feeds. New technologies like Polar's let publishers develop bespoke formats.

However, what's common across all types of content-based and native advertising is that the hero is always the content itself.

It must be compelling enough to engage audiences so that they click to read, watch more or simply stay and complete their experience because the content is relevant and/or of value to them.

Crucially, it must also be absolutely clear that it is from, or enabled by, an advertiser. Native advertising is not invisible advertising. That's illegal.

The UK advertising industry is highly regulated while the publishing industry has a long history of self-regulation. Regardless of platform or channel, on or off-line, the UK sets international benchmarks for its consistent approach to Legal, Decent, Honest and Truthful advertising, regulated by The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

One of the main objectives when the IAB established the Content & Native Council in early 2014, was to provide the industry with clear guidelines around the ASA's well-established Cap Code and to ensure the guidelines reflected not just the law, but audience expectations.

The first part of the content-based and native advertising guidelines, launched this week, are informed by an in-depth qualitative research study that looked at how people regard native and content-based advertising when consuming media.

Until now, most digital advertising has relied on banners, a basic format that struggles to truly engage audiences – particularly across mobile devices. Native and content-based ads provide exciting opportunities for brands to engage as a more natural part of that experience if, and this is vital, consumer trust isn't broken.

Our study revealed people's trust in a brand or publisher can diminish if the origin of the content is unclear.

Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, said: "In a networked world, trust is the most important currency."

Anna Watkins, MD at Guardian Labs, took this one step further and neatly explained how the whole industry is in this together. She said: "If just one advertiser or publisher muddies the waters by failing to be transparent about the funding of the content they're delivering, the whole sector suffers."

Consequently, the guidelines are necessary to support the industry as it develops innovative, new and creative engagement opportunities that are transparent, trusted and, thus, welcomed by audiences.

In many respects, the focus on content and new forms of native distribution could be a watershed moment for the industry's evolution.

Clare O'Brien is senior industry programmes manager at the IAB UK

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