Native advertising has become a popular and profitable income stream for web publishers. Native ads, also called sponsored content, are designed to resemble publishers’ editorial content in form and function. Web publishers run the native ads within their newsfeeds.  

The content of native ads, however, is controlled by the sponsors. The sponsor pays the publisher a fee for the placement. To notify viewers that native ads are indeed advertisements, websites label native ads as “sponsored content,” “paid post,”  “paid content” or other terms. They may also differentiate them with different colors or fonts.

New research by Contently shows that — no matter what publishers do — many viewers remain confused about native advertising. Many are not sure if native ads are advertisements or regular articles.

Some of the main findings of the survey of 509 adults are:

  • Consumers tend to identify native advertising as an article, not an advertisement, in almost every publication examined.
  • Consumers are often unable to identify the brand sponsoring the native ad, although the difficulty varies greatly between publications.
  • Consumers who read native ads they perceive as high quality report a significantly higher trust levels for the sponsoring brand.
  • 62 percent of respondents think a news site loses credibility when it publishes native ads, an increase from 59 percent last year.
  • 48 percent have felt deceived upon realizing a piece of content was sponsored by a brand, a 15 percent decrease from last year.

Respondents were better able to identify the sponsoring brand on Forbes, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and The Atlantic than on The Onion or The Wall Street Journal. However, it’s not obvious why.

Work Remains to be Done

The research concludes that consumers generally view native advertising negatively. Brands sponsoring low-quality native ads with unclear labeling ultimately lose trust and credibility. On the other hand, the Contently survey results also find that consumer trust of brands sponsoring high-quality native ads clearly labeled as sponsored content improve consumer trust.

The results of the surveys indicate that publishers and brands need to improve native ad disclosures and should consider creating more prominent labeling. Although some native ads are recognizable as sponsored content, confusion among consumes remains widespread and the effectiveness of disclosures is uneven, to say the least.

Other research also cites the dangers of native advertising. Research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism earlier this year revealed that:

  • 1/3 or more of British and American viewers surveyed say they have felt disappointed or deceived after reading an article they later learned was sponsored.
  • ½ say they do not like sponsored content but accept it as part of obtaining free news.
  • Over ¼ feel less positively about the news brand because of sponsored content.
  • About 1/5 view the brand sponsoring the content more negatively.

Viewers generally disliked and sometimes actually despised native advertising, researchers said. However, they are more tolerant of paid posts in certain topics, notable fashion travel, lifestyle and motoring. They particularly object to native ads on news, politics and finance.

The research results strongly suggest that sponsors gain nothing by failing to disclose sponsorship of native ads. Full and clear disclosure, on the other hand, can improve trust that viewers have in the sponsor.

Bottom Line: Surveys results reporting on the acceptance by consumers of native advertising serve as warning signs to PR and marketing professionals. Even if publishers and brands believe their labels on native ads provide adequate disclosures, surveys show widespread confusion among their audiences. Sponsored content not properly labeled as an advertisement can cause the brand to lose the consumer’s trust.