Will Native Content Fall Victim to Fake News?

Originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s PR News.

Native ads have overtaken display as the most popular form of digital advertising, but the gaming of social channels and the mistrust of media based on cries of fake news threaten to usurp its value.

In general terms, a native ad is any paid content that mimics the design of the press-generated content available on the channel on which it appears. It can be a paid editorial that subtly weaves a brand’s value into the article. It can be a hashtag that a brand promotes to spur user engagement.

When done well, native ads can be informative and persuade the reader without violating their trust.

In the era of fake news, growing consumer confusion and mistrust, it’s more important than ever that native advertising content be true to this mission.

O'Dwyer's Nov. '19 Technology PR Magazine

This article is featured in O’Dwyer’s Nov. ’18 Technology PR Magazine

Fake versus real content

Americans have been hearing a lot about “fake news” over the last four years. The term was actually coined by BuzzFeed editor Craig Silverman, who defined it as “completely false information that was created and spread for profit.”

The noise around fake news first reached a crescendo during the 2016 presidential election, when it dominated airwaves and altered the way some people perceived the mainstream media.

It’s still used in today’s tribal political warfare, which inaccurately calls out quality news content developed by respected news outlets as false. This misrepresentation can bleed over into mistrust of brand-based content. Consumers are struggling to distinguish between factual and manipulative content, as it can be hard to tell the difference between an outright lie intended to provoke a reaction and a sincere sponsored article designed to mimic objective content. Brands are struggling to walk the line between persuasion and transparency.

How has the relationship between consumers and brands changed?

We live in an era of values-based consumerism. In fact, a recent Forrester report found that seven in ten Millennials consider a company’s values when making a purchase — nearly 40 percent higher than the adult population as a whole.

Even among older generations, it’s becoming increasingly important for brands to declare — and act on — clearly defined corporate values. Customers today want authenticity from their favorite brands — whether it’s a declaration of corporate values or a shift toward more user-generated content.

Going forward, it will be increasingly common to see native ads that rely on user-generated content such as reviews and pain points. These ads will still match the channel’s form and function, but the content will be perceived as less advertorial and more authentic.

Why are native ads so effective?

As digital consumers, we’ve developed a remarkable ability to tune out unwanted information. Just look at the way browsing habits on Google have evolved. Five years ago, people started reading at the top of a search results page. Today, people have learned to start reading about a quarter of the way down, skipping over the paid ads and starting with organic results.

One of the reasons native ads are so effective is their ability to manifest as content developed by a credible third party instead of an advertorial.

According to a recent study by CMO.com, consumers are 25 percent more likely to look at a native ad than at a banner. These same consumers check out a native ad 4.7 times per session on average, versus 2.7 times for banners.

Native ads also have a significant impact on conversions and brand affinity. According to research published by Digital Relevance, native ads have been found to increase purchase intent by 18 percent and brand affinity by nine percent, when compared to traditional banner ads.

Brands are taking notice. According to Business Insider, native advertising will drive 74 percent of all ad revenue by 2021.

Where does public relations fit in?

PR practitioners have a responsibility to serve as brand stewards, helping companies define — and protect — their reputation. They also work closely with the media, leading to coverage that factually informs consumers of the benefits provided by their companies or clients. While it appears the PR person serves several masters, these roles can and should be balanced.

This becomes especially important when external factors such as fear mongering threaten to undermine credible content. PR must straddle the line between increasing brand awareness and affinity and producing honest content, both paid and earned.

When it comes to native ads, the following tips will help you develop a paid media strategy that’s positive and reflects well on your brand.

Lead with quality. While it seems obvious, it’s easy to find brands that don’t start with this commitment. Content must address a need, be written in a journalistic tone, adhere to the style of the publication and be non-promotional. Of course, depending on the content and publication, humor and creativity can be effective tools.

Educate on the value of transparency. Consumer trust is inherently fragile and, once lost, difficult to regain. PR professionals can help brands understand the value of transparency and honesty across every channel, including advertising.

Find the right mix of native ads and earned media. There is no denying the effectiveness of native ads, but a well-rounded outreach strategy will always yield better results. Earned media carries special value, whether it’s a contributed article or a high-impact feature story. It’s a little harder to earn coverage than cut a check, but the impact is worth the effort and will boost the efficacy of native efforts.

Craft ads that won’t leave your customers feeling deceived. Not all native ads are created alike. Some are virtually indistinguishable from editorial content; others are clearly marked as sponsored content. If a native ad feels promotional on any level, it can be interpreted as deceitful on every level.

What’s the future of native advertising?

Marketers and brands alike are extremely bullish on native advertising. When looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. Native is having a tremendous impact on the advertising and PR worlds, with one forecast by eMarketer projecting 40 percent annual growth over the next few years.

Publications are equally reliant on native ads. For example, these ads are responsible for three-quarters of The Atlantic’s annual ad revenue.

With so much money driving native content, it’s important for PR professionals to get a handle on how best to navigate what can be a gray area and ensure that ethical and quality standards are maintained. Native’s long-term health and success will ultimately depend on providing value to the reader.