Political debates may be trending nowadays, but there’s another debate that’s relevant on any given day. Which strategy best maximizes an online marketing budget – straightforward alien ads, native ads or sponsored content? Traditionally, ads of all types are perceived as helping companies to have more control over the message they convey and the audience they reach. However, it’s actually the latter strategy – sponsored content – that’s often touted as the go-to way to generate engagement.
This debate is not a theoretical one, and with online ads spend slated to surpass traditional media spend globally by the year 2020, it’s a discussion we need to have now. The internal resolution of this debate within every organization can have significant consequences for awareness, perception and, of course, sales. If you’re at a media planning crossroad, read this article before allocating any more funds to any of these options.
To start, let’s establish what we’re talking about. Alien ads, native ads and sponsored content are forms of paid online advertising. Each has attached formulaic and ethical norms, as well as traditional and advanced execution and targeting techniques. Though they share many similarities, alien ads, native ads and sponsored content are vastly different practices that yield different results.
For the sake of this article, an online ‘ad’ will be defined as an ‘alien ad’ – promotional content that is intended to look different from the rest of the content on a given platform. Looking at the New York Times homepage (see screenshot below, dated March 21st, 2016), it’s easy to spot the ad – distinguishable by color, design, font, copy, the presence of a clear call-to-action, overall feel, etc.
The purpose of these variations is to make a distinction between advertising and the newspaper content in the eyes of the reader.
Conversely, ‘native’ ads (or ‘native content’) blend in more with the typical content published on a particular platform. In general, this means formatting consistent with the platform, e.g. no call-to-action, and language that strives to appear objective and informational rather than convincing or converting. Native content may be authored by the advertiser or by the publisher, and the sponsorship or affiliation with the advertiser may not be disclosed at all.
One brand making use of native ads is Target, which uses millennial favorite Buzzfeed. Below is just one example in a string of posts examining various humorous angles having to do with the retail giant. Note the tongue-in-cheek title. It’s not overtly positive or negative (perceived neutrality is key), and lacks any mention of sponsorship.
Finally, sponsored content is regarded by many as the happy medium between alien and native advertising. It is product-centric, promotional and highly biased in favor of the product. The sponsoring party is disclosed, and the piece typically includes a call-to-action – making it similar to alien content. That said, sponsored content is also formatted in a way that closely mimics ordinary content. This makes it somewhat more difficult to distinguish from alien ads. Sponsored content is usually provided by the advertisers. Because it is quite clear that the advertisers are sponsoring the ad, publishers may be quite flexible regarding wording. However, the ad may undergo adaptations to better suit the specific publishing platform. Below is an example of sponsored content commissioned by the athletic apparel brand Fabletics. It appears on a publishing platform entitled “How Life Works.” Similar to native ads, we see a pseudo-journalistic headline and text with a suspiciously positive bias. However, the sponsorship is disclosed.
Now that we’ve got our ducks in a row, let’s examine the central advantages of each method.
The Case for Alien Ads
- You’re in Control: The most notable advantage that traditional ‘alien’ ads still have over newer forms of advertising is the level of control they allow the advertiser. Alien ads allow advertisers to control most aspects of the message such as the copy, the shape and, of course, the placement.
- Easy to measure: Thanks to its seniority in the ad game, the alien ad type is well established regarding analysis and reporting. Consequently, most publishers can provide valuable data to both potential and existing advertisers regarding its performance. Most basic tracking tools can easily monitor ad clicks and conversions using serials or other forms of tracking. Thanks to these characteristics, alien ads can be consistently evaluated, and require little or no guessing or wait time until results can be assessed.
- Straightforward: Studies have shown that native ads may be perceived as bordering on deception. Sponsored content can often read or appear as inauthentic on an otherwise independent platform. In light of this, there’s a lot to be said for advertising that’s not pretending to be something that it’s not, and in which likely to invoke resentment from consumers. Moreover, consumers have grown to expect alien ads to surround free content and are willing to pay for them with their attention.
The Case for Native Ads
- Decreased ‘ad blindness’: Alien ads are often ignored by readers, or blocked altogether. In fact, ad blocking has risen 41% in the past year alone. This is because even a moderately seasoned media consumer can detect – and subconsciously disregard — particular shapes and content placements within the layout of a publication (web or print). With native ads, the ad is posing as ordinary content, making it more difficult for a casual reader to ignore it altogether.
- Dubious neutrality: Native ads are essentially ad content that is hidden within content that is native to a publication. As a result, it is usually written with an effort to appear neutral. However, this neutrality is dubious, meaning that the message about the product will never veer from positive. This is a great benefit to advertisers, whom are used to 54% of users mistrusting alien ads. That said, if the native ad’s lack of neutrality is detected (by language used, for instance), the reader may very well choose to move on, perhaps with a level of disappointment.
- (A degree of) control and easy measurement: To a certain extent, native ads have two of the advantages of alien ads. This is especially true when it comes to measuring and tracking. Since they are typically not disclosed outright, native ads often include do-follow links which are better for SEO. Regarding alien ads and sponsored content, Google’s newest guidelines specify that both should include no-follow links, thus significantly reducing their strength. Considering that other parameters, such as creative and voice, are still very much under the control of the brand, native ads are definitely a solid and somewhat safe alternative (or added channel) for companies looking to branch out from traditional alien advertising.
The Case for Sponsored Content
- Engagement potential: This form of ad content is the only one meant to ‘inform’ the reader of a subject while referring to the advertiser. This perceived neutrality is typically read with less suspicion – a prime foundation for true engagement. With the average click-through-rate of alien and native ads being at only 0.06%, this higher engagement potential is crucial.
- Variety of angles to explore: The target audience becomes much more significant when creating sponsored content. Important questions to consider are: Who are we trying to reach? What specifically would the audience be interested in reading about? Often, the answer to the second question may have little to do with the product. This is a golden opportunity to explore all the innovative angles with which to reach potential customers. Excellent examples of this is can be found in both the LA Times’ sponsored section Local+, and the NY Times’ various paid posts. An example of the latter is an article sponsored by Netflix, entitled: Women Inmates- Separate but not Equal. The popular Netflix streamed series Orange is the New Black, which deals with the inmates at a women’s prison, is mentioned near the beginning of this otherwise informative and serious article. The NY Times benefits from the content, the readers benefit from the enriching read, and Netflix benefits from the mention and the flattering association with an in-depth piece in a prestigious publication. Win, win, win.
- Non-interruptive: Nowadays, with so much compelling content readily available online, consumers have little or no patience with interruptive ads. These are ads they can detect and be annoyed by, such as pop-ups and flashing banners. Unlike traditional ads, sponsored content attempts to provide readers with what they’re after in the first place – more compelling content. By doing this, advertisers are increasing the chances that their efforts will actually be noticed and read.
The Magic Formula: Striking an Effective Balance
Although the disadvantages of these ad strategies were not discussed at length in this article, they can have definite consequences, such as a long turnover and questionable relevance. They can also result in an unflattering association with deception (native ads), and a complete disregard for the target audience (alien ads). This brings us to the inevitable conclusion that each strategy is useful and legitimate, depending on the budget you’re working with, the niche you operate in, the audience you’d like to reach and the results you’re after.
We recommend you experiment with different content forms and platforms in order to find the type of paid advertising that yields the best results for you. Hint: it will likely be a blend of these three strategies, tailored to your needs and constantly shifting.
Meanwhile, refer to the following list of our recommendations, when building an online advertising strategy, to best serve one of these three main objectives:
|Objective||Budget||Primary approach||Secondary approach|
Boost app downloads
|Low-medium||Alien ads||Sponsored content – relevant blog|
|Medium-high||Sponsored content on leading publication||Alien ads|
|Increase visibility / build reputation in a new market||Low-medium||Native ads||Sponsored content – mediocre publication|
|Medium-high||Sponsored content on leading publication||Native ads|
Increase relevant traffic & conversion
|Low-medium||Alien ads||Native ads|
|Medium-high||Sponsored content – leading publications and a select few leading bloggers||Alien ads|