In late February, the academic journal Digital Journalism published findings from a new study on audience reactions to native advertising.

The article, “Saving Media or Trading on Trust?”  by Michelle A. Amazeen and Ashley R. Muddiman, offers some sobering insights for publishers active in the native space. 

Co-author, Dr Michelle A. Amazeen, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations at Boston University, kindly answered my questions about the main implications of her research for media companies.

The rise of native

Nearly three out of four online publishers in the United States now offer native advertising opportunities, Amazeen and Muddiman note, with the US the leading market for expenditure on this medium. “The practice is gaining global momentum with significant spending occurring worldwide, particularly in China, Japan and the United Kingdom,” they add.

A key driver for this growth are the premium revenues this income stream typically attracts.

At a time of declining subscriptions and rising use of ad blockers, “publishers have been keen to find new sources of revenue,” the authors write.

Discussing her own media habits, Amazeen admits to having moved from traditional print newspaper consumption to an online habit.

“Although it’s very convenient,” she says, “it’s harder to know which stories are considered front page news because there’s no longer a front page. It’s also harder to know when you’re done with the paper because there’s so many links that can take you elsewhere. And it’s becoming harder to distinguish whether the content you are reading is news or something else…like advertising.”

Blurred lines

This lack of distinction is arguably what some advocates want. Amazeen and Muddiman quote from the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s 2013 “Native Advertising Playbook” which defines native advertising as “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.”

Amazeen also mentions David Ogilvy, noting that in Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy argued:

“There is no need for advertisements to look like advertisements. If you make them look like editorial pages, you will attract about 50 percent more readers. You might think that the public would resent this trick, but there is no evidence to suggest that they do.”

“That got me wondering,” she says, “especially because I’ve heard people complain about ads masquerading as news… So, I decided a social scientific approach to the effects and effectiveness of native advertising was in order.”

Audiences struggle to identify native advertising

In March last year, 443 respondents took an online survey looking at content from two sources  (a legacy publisher versus a fictitious digital startup) and three pieces of content (unbranded article, forewarned branded/native article, not forewarned branded/native article).

Looking at their responses, Amazeen reveals: “I was most surprised by how few people were able to recognize that what they were seeing was advertising,” a conclusion also found in several other studies.

“Absent any additional warnings other than the disclaimer, [and] fewer than 1 in 5 people recognized native advertising when they were exposed to it – and these were native ads labeled as ‘sponsored content,’” Amazeen says.

Amazeen and Muddiman’s sample also shared other characteristics with a number of other recent studies, with less than half of their respondents able to recall the source of the article they were shown.

“Many people don’t recall publisher brand names when they read material online,” Amazeen says. “I guess I’m also surprised by how uncritical people are becoming overall with regards to what they are reading online, particularly the origin or source of what they are reading.”

 “What seems to be happening is the rise of “platform journalism;” while people once sought out journalism on publisher sites, increasingly they are grazing on what is delivered to them via social media on mobile devices. 

Publisher brand names are becoming less relevant.

This is consequential to advertisers, particularly for native advertising, who seek out specific publishers because of their publishing brand reputation.

Impact on legacy and digital-born operators

Interestingly, the paper found, consumer “attitudes toward the publisher and perceptions of its credibility declined for both [legacy and digital-born], although online publishers suffered greater attitudinal damage than did legacy publishers who may benefit from their established reputation.”

“We saw some evidence that the use of native was more harmful to digital-born operators, although we used a fictitious online publisher in this study.”

“Nonetheless, anyone these days can call themselves a publisher,” Amazeen says, contending that this has lead to a rise in consumption of content from unfamiliar sources.

“However, although we saw greater harm to digital-born organizations, legacy publishers may have more at risk. They have to protect and maintain their branded reputations.”

What remains open is whether the reputational risks evidenced in the study outweigh the potential for income generation from native advertising. What also remains unsettled is whether this type of boundary blurring journalism is acceptable to informed audiences.

If the emphatic response from one of our participants to the open-ended question about whether they noticed any advertising is an indication—“The entire damn thing is an ad. Everything is a goddamn ad now!”—publishers need to be doing more research on audience responses to native advertising. (Amazeen and Muddiman, 2017) 

Implications for publishers

“I think publishers need to be wary of native advertising,” Amazeen says. “It’s a double-edged sword. While it may bring incremental revenue at a time when publishers are bleeding ad dollars, there may be a cost down the road if they alienate their readers.” 

This conversation, Amazeen reflects, plays out against a backdrop where trust levels in journalists are at record lows, and where concepts of “alternative facts” and “fake news” are gaining credence with some constituencies.

“Using First Draft’s continuum of mis- and disinformation as a framework, native advertising arguably sits somewhere between imposter content and manipulated content,” Amazeen suggests.

“At minimum,” Amazeen recommends, “if a publisher is going to continue on down the native advertising road, the content must be transparent: clearly label the material as advertising with words that consumers understand.” 

“And it needs to be transparent on every platform – desktop, mobile, social. With the increase in sharing and publisher posts to external platforms, content becomes unmoored from its origin. The branding and type of content (editorial vs. advertising) needs to be maintained.”

Elsewhere, in their paper, Amazeen and Muddiman also highlight how “a growing number of publications are enlisting editorial staff in creating native advertising,” removing previously intractable church-state boundaries.

“News organizations should also be transparent about who funded the content, not only from a journalistic integrity standpoint,” they write, echoing thoughts published by the American Press Institute, “ but also because journalism demands transparency from other institutions.” 

Potential solutions

Amazeen reports that she’s seen “some interesting work” from Contently. “By partnering with reputable organizations such as the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, they give their work more credibility than industry-sponsored studies that often lack in rigor,” she says.

“There are so many different types of native advertising; the quality and tone of the content is not appropriate for every publisher,” she adds.

Given the potentially “uneasy relationship” at the heart of the advertiser-publisher-audience dynamic, “publishers need to be doing more research on audience responses to native advertising,” Amazeen advises. 

One way to do this, she recommends, is to solicit reader feedback on native campaigns via a short pop-up survey. “And this should be something they [the publishers] control, not the sponsoring advertiser,” she says.

Amazeen is further diving into this topic, currently working in collaboration with Bart Wojdynski from the University of Georgia. “With a grant from the American Press Institute, we are taking a close look at how the transparency of native advertising disclosures affects people’s attitudes and perceptions of native advertising and those associated with it,” she explains.  

They hope to share these findings in the next few months.