#OPSPOV: A Native Ad by Any Other Name Is… Confusing

A Native Ad by Any Other Name Is... Confusing

Native advertising is such an ingrained part of media, you could call it the business’s “one weird old trick!” And while digital media inherited native from print, native seems particularly well for this particular moment in digital. Plenty of publishers are ready to ditch display in lieu of an all- or mostly-native ad strategy, if they have the resources to make it happen.

Trouble is, when users click on a native unit without realising it’s an ad, there’s backlash. You end up with a louder and grumpier contingent of users convinced digital media is full of shady players and “surprise!” ads. They’re kind of wrong, but their takeaway has impact.

Basically, users need to know what they’re getting into before clicking, not after. That makes proper disclosure of native ad units really important, says a new report the Online Trust Alliance released yesterday. The OTA looked at 100 leading digital news and media publishers, and rated them in terms of disclosures (the bit of text announcing this unit is an ad), discoverability (how easy or difficult it is to read that text) and delineation (how clearly distinguished, by shading or borders or something else, from the rest of the publisher’s page).

In so many words, the OTA’s report shows a messy and inconsistent system of disclosures for native ads. Among the disclosure terms—“Advertisement,” “Sponsored by,” “Presented by” and so on—it found 43 different phrases, 33 of which were used in only one instance throughout the study. Among the sites evaluated that used native ads, only 9% hit 80% or more of the OTA’s own criteria for transparency. And 70% of the sites running native netted 55% or less of those criteria.

The major question the OTA report presents is: Should there be standardized terms and practices for disclosure in native? The OTA makes its own recommendations for best practices here. The IAB and the FTC have weighed in on the subject. But there’s no standardization—and maybe that’s part of why so many users feel like native is some kind of trickery.

The IAB has recommended of disclosures “language that conveys the advertising has been paid for.” Okay—clearly there are at least 33 ways to skirt that. The FTC has been firmer and more specific about disclosures and what they are likely to convey. For example, it recommends using the word “Advertisement.” “Sponsored” indicates an advertiser underwrote the content, but didn’t create it. “Promoted” or “Presented” are misleading—they suggest the publisher itself endorses the content.

The FTC sounds on point to me. Their interpretation sounds consistent with the way editorial thinks about content, and with common feedback from users. And the OTA’s language echoes the FTC’s, in many ways. One thing the OTA further suggested was that publishers bring recommended terminology to third parties who might pre-populate the disclosure terms. Consistency is an important part of transparency.

The OTA, FTC and IAB are all inching toward a similar goal of transparency in native disclosures, but altogether, their recommendations aren’t necessarily standards. Perhaps it’s time to be firmer about this stuff: For publishers and brands that are opaque about native, there can be real consequences. So how many disclosures are enough, how should they be phrased, and how should they look on the page? Publishers are going to have to ask themselves and each other whether best practices are enough, or whether standardization is needed to keep native blooming.