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.”