Along with all the talk about content blockers, there has been a lot of talk about what the future of web publications might be. Whereby “future” people really mean: “how they will make money at some point in time that is decidedly not today”. People seem to be in one of three camps on this matter: nothing can change and we are doomed; “native” advertising is the bees knees; and what I shall call “lala land” whereby people think some form of magic will happen without any effort.
I want to focus on native advertising, since it keeps popping up everywhere (likely because someone gave it a fancy new name). Let’s break down some examples of this so called “native” advertising:
- Sponsored posts/reviews/infographics
- RSS feed sponsors
- Podcast ads read by the podcasters themselves and largely improvised
Those are the three most popular methods of this advertising — you can currently see these on a lot of blogs and pretty much any podcast, but there are various other methods floating around as well.
What I hear when people say “native” advertising is: advertising that is not easily blocked at all. Because really, that’s what we are talking about, a way to continue down the advertising path in a way that is not effected by new technologies like content blockers.
Here’s the most annoying thing about native ads: “Oh, sweet, ‘5 things about Soylent that are amazing’, cool I’ll read that. Clicks ‘Written by CEO of Soylent’ Fuck me.”
Anyways, this native advertising is not the savior of the web, and is potentially very harmful. Because there are two types of websites: those with sales staff, and those without and not having a sales staff when doing native advertising is very problematic.
But if you have a sales staff, native advertising can work pretty well — as the writers don’t have to be influenced by who the advertiser of the week is.1 So it’s not sites with a sales staff that I am worried about, but oddly enough those are the sites that seemingly avoid this type of advertising.
Instead it’s all those sites without a dedicated sales staff that worry me, because that kind of negotiations and relationships with advertisers — to setup and sell native ads — is a very dangerous situation to find yourself in.
And since John Gruber at Daring Fireball is such a proponent of these ads, let’s pick on him for a moment. Gruber primarily writes about Apple and the tech industry at large. So what if Apple came to Gruber to buy an ad spot? Does he sell it? If not, why doesn’t he? It’s a product he clearly believes in, something he would write about anyways, but still — it’s Apple — so should he allow them to pay him directly to have a native ad on his site?
I would say he should avoid this at all costs, but that argument is a thin one at best because it meets all of his criteria for an ad: something he believes in, something his readers like, and something he would talk about anyways. And if he does accept the ad, even knowing that the has more than a decade of history for being objective about Apple — how does a reader look at Gruber’s praise of Apple now? It’s potentially devastating for the writers authenticity, and for reader trust. The entire system could crumble. Even though it seems like a logical sponsor for his site.
Or here’s another scenario I see playing out all over the web: a small app is reviewed with great gusto and praise by a site, and a few weeks (or months) later that app is paying for a sponsorship on the site. Now, those are likely two unrelated events — perhaps the app didn’t know about the site before the review, but now they know about the site and the exposure was great, so why not get more by paying for advertisement?
But now the site publisher is in a hairy situation. They know the review was genuine because they wrote it long before they were ever contacted by that developer, but will people still believe it was genuine if they accept this sponsorship? Or will everyone just yell “conspiracy” and find another review site? Will the people who read the review long before the sponsorship rethink that review? Will new readers finding that review disregard the objectivity of the entire site because of this one ad?
There’s no easy solution, unless you don’t ever want to write about products or companies.
This is the very problem with native ads on sites that don’t have a sales staff. Even if2 there is no undue influence between the writer and the advertiser, it will always look like there was undue influence. And that is disastrous for looking objective and reader trust.
The writer will always wonder if they are covering an update because it is really worth covering, or because they are pals/business acquaintances with the product owner. Readers will always question why the writer is saying what they are saying.
And slowly, but surely, the readership of the site will drop and dwindle away, and the writer will feel more conflicted than ever.
Native ads are a problem, not a solution.
They erode trust in readership. They cause people to question objectivity. They force people struggling to make money into impossible decisions between affording the next month’s hosting bill and losing the trust of their readers.
I have yet to meet a single blogger who had anything but good intentions when stuck in these situations, but by saying that native ads are the way forward we are deciding that there is no such thing as subconscious influence. And I can assure that for even someone like me who has zero ads on this site — it is hard to make sure that I am completely objective on everything that I do. So the best I can do is point out bias as I see it.
And in the case of web advertising it is very clear that I have a natural bias against it, but I also made a lot of money from web advertising in the past. I’ve worked both sides of advertising.