Newspapers have their advertorials. TV has its infomercials. Social media have sponsored tweets and paid-for Facebook posts. Now, the newest wave of online marketing — so-called “native ads” — is pushing even further across the lines that separate news content from advertising.
Such ads mimic the look and feel of a Web site’s editorial content, using the same headline style, typeface and tone of its news and feature articles. And they are bringing profitable clicks to sites — from Gawker to YouTube or the Atlantic — according to Jeff Greenspan, a New York adman who is among the pioneers of the form.
(U-Shin Kim) - Jeff Greenspan of BuzzFeed.
As chief creative officer for BuzzFeed.com, the politics-and-pop-culture site, Greenspan oversees ad making for clients such as JetBlue, Virgin Mobile and Volkswagen. The ads that his 15-member team creates don’t look like ads; they look more like the list-happy articles that draw more than 25 million people to BuzzFeed each month.
Advertisers have gravitated to native ads — advertisements that “go native” by adopting a site’s aesthetic — on the expectation that they will generate more attention, engagement and interaction than traditional banner, pop-up or page “takeover” messages from sponsors. Web sites that have seen prices for banner ads deflate amid intense competition and consumer indifference are betting on native ads as the surest way to keep ad dollars coming.
The chameleon-like ads have heightened the questions that dogged advertorials for decades. “The obvious issue is whether it’s advertising disguised as editorial content from a journalist,” says Dan Gillmor, who directs the digital media entrepreneur program at Arizona State University. “The more disguised it is, the more problematic that is from a journalist’s perspective.”
That’s where native ads — the sole revenue source for BuzzFeed, which threads the ads throughout its busy home page — cause concern. See that headline and link — “14 People Making the Best of Bad Situations” — embedded amid all the other headlines and links? With its upbeat and humorous tone, the item is almost indistinguishable from articles created by the editorial staff, such as “The 58 Cutest Things Found Behind The Scenes At The Puppy Bowl” or “The 50 Most Important Lessons Learned from ‘30 Rock.’ ”
The difference: Volkswagen paid Greenspan’s ad-making team to come up with “14 People,” which consists of photos of people overcoming everyday obstacles. The theme ties in with the automaker’s marketing message “Get in. Get happy.” The only tipoff to its funding and intent is Volkswagen’s logo and a small notation under the headline, identifying Volkswagen as a BuzzFeed “featured partner.” The words “ad” or “advertising” are nowhere.
Greenspan says such subtle selling resonates with people because it offers something more than the usual sales message about prices or product attributes. The ad also is engineered for interaction. There’s a comments section, as well as buttons enabling readers to rate it as “cute,” “geeky” or “trashy.” More buttons make the advertorial easy to tweet, link to or post on Facebook and Pinterest.