‘Native ads’ on Web can blur line between news and advertising


A screengrab from Buzzfeed.com. (BuzzFeed)
February 1, 2013

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.

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.”


Jeff Greenspan of BuzzFeed. (U-Shin Kim)

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.

A well-designed native ad can “foster a conversation” about the content and the advertiser, Greenspan says.

But this kind of hybrid has pitfalls for Web sites, too. The Atlantic magazine’s site learned that lesson last month with a native ad for the Church of Scientology. The ad, which congratulated the church and its leader on a “milestone” year, looked like an Atlantic article; the only signal that it wasn’t was a small flag reading “sponsor content.”

Within hours of the ad’s appearance, readers were blasting the magazine on Twitter for providing a promotional platform for the controversial church. Critics thought the ad’s presentation was deceptive (among other things, the magazine’s marketing staff attempted to keep negative reactions off the ad’s comment stream). In response, the Atlantic pulled the ad and said it would subject its ads to more review.

Greenspan says there’s no intent to deceive. But “sponsored content,” as it’s also known, works best when it emphasizes the content and not the sponsor, he says. Some advertisers ask BuzzFeed if they can have greater prominence in their BuzzFeed ads, such as placing their logo or watermark on photos. The answer is invariably no, Greenspan tells them, because readers will be alienated if the sales message is too overt.

“People will know on some level that it’s an ad, but if JetBlue is all over it, no one will share it,” he says. “No one wants something in their Twitter feed or [Facebook] news feed if they feel they’re going to be perceived as a shill for an ad. If it’s just a promotion, that’s not shareable.”

Native ads can take different forms, from paid product listings on Amazon to “promoted videos” on YouTube. Like BuzzFeed, Gawker.com, for example, offers “sponsored posts,” which are inserted into its lineup of most-popular news articles and editorial content. Although the word “sponsored” accompanies each of these posts, the copy is written to sound like a Gawker article. Or as the site tells advertisers, “Our in-house writing talents handle your post from ideation to execution, infusing your brand message with our signature, conversational tone.”

In other words, subtlety sells. But among those who said they had seen a native ad on Facebook, some 57 percent said they found it misleading, according to an October poll by Harris Interactive for MediaBrix, a software developer. And 86 percent said the same of online video ads that appeared to be nonadvertising content. (Print advertorials came in at a 66 percent “misleading” rate.)

Although readers don’t mind learning what advertisers have to say — Gillmor, the Arizona State professor, cites Exxon Mobil’s long-running advertorial commentaries on the New York Times’s op-ed page — such ads need to be “clearly delineated” from the editorial to ensure readers aren’t confused, he says.

Nonetheless, BuzzFeed’s president, Jon Steinberg, a former Google executive, says that native ads will grow for a simple reason: Publishers can charge more for them than other kinds of online ads.

Advertisers pay an average of $9 for every thousand views of one of BuzzFeed’s sponsored content, a rate comparable to the most prominently displayed banner ads on popular Web sites. But many sites command only $1 or $2 per thousand views of their banners because of abundant availability, Steinberg says.

The premium price for a native ad reflects its singularity and custom design by Greenspan’s staff members, as well as its placement amid BuzzFeed’s widely read editorial content, he says. Also, the ads generate far higher viewing rates and more engagement than a banner, Steinberg notes. “It’s a better ad product, built from the ground up,” he says.

Greenspan is even more blunt: “I made banner ads for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on one.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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