Just when I think I’ve become used to swatting away those pesky, intrusive banner ads, I land on a site filled with ads so distracting they push my patience and tolerance to limits previously unknown. Banner ads leave something to be desired, for both advertisers and website visitors. But what are the alternatives?
There are three trends going on right now in the advertising world: new types of personalized ads, native ads, and no ads. We have businesses trying to make ads more targeted, relevant, and personalized. We have websites using native advertising and trying to integrate ads into the content of a site in a natural, unobtrusive way. And we have websites opposed to ads and consequently utterly devoid of them. (We also have an incredible journalist whose opposition to the commingling of journalism and advertising can be described as nothing less than fervid—I’ll get to Andrew Sullivan later.)
Why does all of this matter? It matters for writers, for readers, for social media users. It matters, in short, for everyone who ever plans on using the Internet. Because while debate and trenchant analysis about the latest advertising trends and Facebook’s business model may be confined to people who spend their free time perusing Ad Age and the Stock app on their iPhones, happenings in the ad world aren’t rarefied.
Here’s a look at what advertising is, what advertising is not, and what advertising may look like in the future.
New Methods of Advertising:
(Or, slightly new variations on previously existing methods of advertising.) Banner ads are awful. From an advertising perspective, they generate abysmal clickthrough rates. From a user-experience perspective, they’re at best distracting and at worst insufferable. In the quest to find a better, feasible alternative, businesses have gone a few different ways.
One of those ways is to make ads more targeted and personalized. Facebook does this all the time, sprinkling our news feeds with sponsored content that lets us know our friends have liked a certain brand, hoping we’ll take that as a vote of confidence and like the brand too.
Facebook just announced its purchase of Atlas from Microsoft, and according to Ad Age, Facebook may be testing out a new kind of advertising that would meld offline purchases with online targeting. It would look like this: if I go to my local grocery store, use my loyalty/rewards card, and buy a case of Snapple Iced Tea, the next time I log onto Facebook, I may see an ad for Snapple Iced Tea. Facebook’s new ad method would let brands target users based on the items these people have bought in stores. You need an email or a phone number to sign up for a loyalty program. You need an email to sign up for Facebook. Match data from shopper loyalty programs to individual Facebook profiles and you have batches of filtered, custom Facebook audiences ripe for brand targeting.
Facebook isn’t the only one experimenting with this ultra-targeted advertising. Big brands like Coca-Cola, Nike, Verizon, and L’Oreal are on board with social intent marketing, which lets them respond to social media conversations with ads. If I tweet about going for a run, Nike can serve me up an ad for a FuelBand or new running sneakers. If I tweet about my shameful addiction to Diet Pepsi, Coca-Cola can target me with an ad for Diet Coke.
Facebook is on a never-ending mission to prove that its ads are effective, and just as news regarding the purchase of Atlas broke, Ad Age offered some food for thought. It released a survey in which it polled 701 marketers and media execs on the effectiveness of sponsored stories. Of the 29.3% that bought sponsored stories, 64.8% were “somewhat satisfied” with the ROI, and 84.3% would buy a sponsored story again.
Targeted ads and social intent marketing, whether served up by Facebook or another website, bring up the issue of privacy. It’s a concept people are quick to rally around and defend. Most of us have accepted ads (native or not) on social networking sites as a necessary evil, but when it comes to finely targeted ads, will people appreciate the relevance or grow disconcerted at it? People won’t click on irrelevant ads, but can things be too relevant, in an eerie and unnerving way? In regard to social intent marketing, brands understandably want to advertise to people already interested in a product/service. But if that exact type of advertising pushes people away rather than pulls them in, can it really be effective?
While some brands go the way of personalized ads, others go the way of content creation and native advertising. Defining native advertising has been a point of contention but the basic idea is ads are presented in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of a website. Ads fit naturally into the experience of a platform. They look like the content that surrounds them. I mentioned above the sponsored stories Facebook presents us in our news feeds; these sponsored stories are a form of native advertising.
I initially deemed native advertising a mere buzzword, but I now realize I was cursory in my dismissal. Major sites like BuzzFeed and The Atlantic use it.
And according to Mashable, in 2013, 57 percent of venture capitalists, private equity firms, and angel donors say they are likely or very likely to invest in companies that sell native advertising. Additionally, 34 percent of publishers say they are likely or very likely to add a native advertising option to their menus.
BuzzFeed is a pioneer in this field, and because of the site’s success with native advertising, it raised $19.3 million in a fourth round venture funding. According to BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, the site works with brands to help them “speak the language of the web.” BuzzFeed has no banner or display ads. Instead, it features posts presented by certain brands, a.k.a. “featured partners,” like Virgin Mobile, AT&T, Taco Bell, and Fuze, to name a few. These ads look like articles, and they are articles. These posts fit the feel of BuzzFeed and fit the look of BuzzFeed. They have that same frivolity, that same witty, humorous language. They read like non-branded posts. They’re labeled “Presented by” or “Partner” and have a yellow background.
Except for the label and background color, these posts are virtually indistinguishable from BuzzFeed content—and that’s the whole point. BuzzFeed will make money by, to put it in Peretti’s terms, “helping brands become publishers.” Brands become publishers through content and through the creation of ads unique to the platform on which they’re presented. Sponsored content on BuzzFeed is unique to the tone and experience of BuzzFeed. Sponsored content on The Atlantic is unique to the tone and experience of The Atlantic. The user experience stays consistent across both original content and sponsored content. These ads are shareable. And, equally important, they’re readable.
This sounds promising, doesn’t it? I’m a big fan of BuzzFeed, and a few months ago I tentatively clicked on a post marked “Partner.” It was presented by Virgin Mobile, and to my surprise, read like a typical BuzzFeed article with some pictures and a small amount of text. It was a quick read; it was a fun read; and it didn’t gag on any tacky, poorly written sales copy. I could have even shared this article without shame.
I want to read BuzzFeed, and I want to read BuzzFeed for free. BuzzFeed wants to appeal to readers, and it also wants to make money. Native advertising lets BuzzFeed make money (thereby keeping things free) and doesn’t deter readers because it presents them with relevant, interesting information. Native ads match BuzzFeed’s content in terms of tone, topic, and template design.
Even AOL, so often derided as a vestigial remnant of a long-gone digital era, is turning away from banner ads and focusing more on native and real-time ads. According to Ad Week, AOL’s editorial team will help brands create content in real time, while display ads will become subject to “programmatic selling mechanisms.”
On sites full of banner ads, I have no choice but to look at those ads. But with a site like BuzzFeed, the choice to click on sponsored content is mine. On a site in which a brand functions not as a banner-ad pusher but as a sponsored-content creator, the choice to interact with a brand is in my hands. When I read BuzzFeed, I can tune out all sponsored content if I want to, so the challenge for brands is to create something worth reading.
Native ads pose a problem though—at least for some people. For opponents of native advertising, these types of ads are an exercise in mimicry, and imitation fosters a deceitful and ethically murky form of journalism. Native ads are by definition ads that blend into a website. But when native ads blend in to the point that they’re indistinguishable from original content, isn’t this deception?
Andrew Sullivan is the writer behind the Dish. Two weeks ago he debated quite heatedly with Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed. Sullivan stated that BuzzFeed’s branded content, which he (and others) terms advertorials, i.e., ads packaged as editorials, is so similar to original content that it’s difficult to differentiate between the two.
I thought Sullivan’s remarks were especially interesting, mainly because months ago, when I figured out exactly what native advertising is, I wondered if an ad that masquerades as content is inherently deceitful. Is “blend in with” a euphemism for “disguised as”? And yet, at the same time, isn’t it necessary to present ads as content because virtually everyone ignores ads? If ads are prominently marked as ads, will we ignore them? But if ads aren’t prominently marked as ads, will we feel tricked? I know I would. But then who/what determines whether a partner-sponsored post is “clearly labeled”?
Sullivan talked about something else too. He mentioned that native advertising is a huge opportunity for corruption. Here’s a hypothetical: a journalist writes a product review. This product review appears as original content. It doesn’t appear to be an ad, but in reality, this journalist was paid on behalf of the company to write this review. If this hypothetical situation became a reality, how would readers ever trust reviews? How would we know whether a journalist is being paid to write on behalf of a brand or is simply writing his/her own honest views about something?
Things also get murky in regard to another website going the way of native advertising: Gawker. The site hires people to write about products, product advice, deals, coupons, etc. It then makes money when those products sell. These writers are called “commerce specialists.” What they write is “content commerce.” Their jobs involve “helping readers buy things.” (Right now it’s looking for someone to write on Kotaku, a video game–focused blog that is one of Gawker Media’s properties.)
Is this journalism, or is this marketing copy?
Native ads can (and do) work really well on BuzzFeed, where the topics are as innocuous as the newest Internet trends, Taco Bell menu items, and things to do in Las Vegas. But The Atlantic caused a stir when it published an effusive piece, including positive comments, on the Church of Scientology that turned out to be sponsored content. The Atlantic revised its guidelines for native advertising after the uproar, but the incident will forever be a lesson in how not to go about native advertising.
Even if BuzzFeed successfully uses it, native advertising is in many regards a fledgling trend. And like personalized ads, native advertising raises a lot of questions. What are the best practices? Is this the future of advertising, a future in which brands integrate rather than interrupt? Can readers get on board with this future?
In the midst of personalized ads and native ads, some writers and websites have ditched ads altogether. I said above that most of us chalk up ads to a necessary evil, but on a handful of burgeoning websites, there’s nothing evil to accept. That’s because on these websites, there are no ads.
There’s Svbtle, a blogging platform that operates on an invite-only publishing basis and that’s entirely free of ads. And there’s Medium, founded by the co-founder and former CEO of Twitter. It also publishes content by invitation only, and it’s also free of ads. You can read thoughtful, meaningful pieces on Svbtle and Medium without encountering a single ad. These sites are simple, clean, and devoid of clutter. Oh, and they have no comment sections either. They provide amazing content in a tranquil setting. Refreshing? Yes. Wonderfully different? Yes. Doomed to failure because of the difficulty of monetizing quality content? Time will tell, but Svbtle raised a round of financing (though it’s not saying how much) from investors like CrunchFund, Betaworks, and SV Angel.
And if unwelcome promoted tweets in your Twitter timeline have you down, you may find solace in App.net, an ad-free, subscription-based social feed and API. On first glance, App.net looks like an ersatz Twitter that people pay to use, but it’s actually much more. App.net subscribers have access to over 100 different apps, and the site gives developers a platform through which to develop apps. It also has a Developer Incentive Program, in which it distributes $30,000 per month to developers who create apps that receive high user-satisfaction ratings.
App.net emphatically communicates its outright opposition to ads. The site urges people to “join the movement,” a movement in which users, not advertisers, come first. It’s a movement App.net describes in terms like these:
“We are selling our product, not our users. We will never sell your personal data, content, feed, interests, clicks, or anything else to advertisers. We promise.”
“App.net employees spend 100% of their time improving our services for you, not advertisers.”
“We are operating a sustainable, predictable business. App.net will always have a clear business model.” (Hmm…which social media site doesn’t have a clear business model? Oh, that’s right.)
And then there’s Andrew Sullivan. He’s a bit of (OK, a major) blogging celebrity. His blog, the Dish, had a contract with the Daily Beast, but when that contract ended, Sullivan and the Dish went solo. The Dish is totally independent of any other media entities, and it’s totally unconcerned with ads. The Dish Model is this: readers alone sustain the site. You have a limited number of free articles to read, and then you’re asked to subscribe (like The New York Times). But the Dish Model also makes things interesting: readers pay a minimum of $19.99 per month; however, readers can donate as much as they like, whatever they think a year of reading the Dish is worth to them. Sullivan puts it like this:
“No member will have any more access or benefits than any other member, but if hardcore Dishheads want to give us some love for the years of free blogging and for the adventure ahead, we’d be crazy not to take it.”
After Sullivan announced the Dish model, he raised a third of a million dollars and signed up 12,000 paid subscribers in 24 hours. Time will tell whether or not this method is viable and sustainable. But if it does work for Andrew Sullivan, it’s because he’s Andrew Sullivan. He’s the exception, not the rule, as the vast majority of writers can in no way live on the paid subscriptions (and good will) of readers alone.
Svbtle, Medium, App.net, and the Dish are antidotes for the cynical Internet user disillusioned with ad ambush and escapes from ad overload. All of the sites place readers above advertisers, quality and content above advertisements.
Not every website can be a Svbtle. Not every writer can live and work like Andrew Sullivan. But it’s nice to know that in the midst of our digital consumption, we can take a break from those ad-overstuffed sites and turn to something leaner and trimmer.
This entire post brings up the topic of the trade-off: in exchange for a free Facebook, we turn over our personal information. Targeted ads are the price we pay for free services. Some people brush off personalized ads or re-targeting, chalking it up to the nature of the trade-off. Some people say that personalized ads are nowhere near as unnerving as facial recognition software. If you don’t like how Facebook uses your personal information, you can refrain from using Facebook (or install AdBlock).
If you’re morally/philosophically opposed to ads, willing to pay, and have an interest in thought-provoking pieces, you can turn to Svbtle, Medium, the Dish, or App.net.
Or you can read BuzzFeed and not click on a single piece of sponsored content—unless the piece is so intriguing or alluring that it compels you to click.
Your move, brands.