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The rules of native engagement

It’s always a sign of acceptance and maturity in any activity when someone comes up with a rule book; and that’s just as true for the phenomenon of native advertising.

In this case, the guardian of all that is good is the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), who have been watching the growth of native for some time. Perhaps waiting in case it just fizzled out like another fad or was destined to be a long-term part of the marketing and publishing landscape. In any case, they have now published the first native ads guidelines.

The latest UK numbers are, according to IAB and professional services consultants PwC, that native accounted for a spend of £216 million in the first two quarters of 2014; that’s over 20% of the total display ad spend – hardly fizzling out! In fact, a number of players on both sides of the advertiser/publisher border have dropped display ads altogether and have thrown their hats very decisively into the native ring – even one of the internet’s opinion-formers, BuzzFeed.

Given that extraordinary level of growth and market share, it was inevitable that native sponsored content would attract the attention of the authorities. The good news for the industry is that the rules in this first part of the guidelines are actually based on customer research and effective good practice.

The danger with native content has always been that if a reader doesn’t know that the content they’re reading is commercially targeted, there is the danger of resentment against the publication and against the advertiser for a perceived deception. So guideline number one is unequivocal: publishers must “Provide prominently visual clues to show that pieces are native ads and not editorial”. They suggest a mix of logos and typographical design tools, such as fonts and shading, to differentiate between editorial and native content.

Well, there’s no argument with that, nor the requirement that publishers must add labels to indicate the commercial relationship, along the lines of “Brought to you by…” or “Paid promotion”. Research carried out for the IAB shows that trust increases with the transparency of the origin of the content and, as trust and engagement are the goals of native advertising, these guidelines really are just good practice.

Those who have been carrying the native advertising torch for many years know that when native content is good, i.e. of value to the reader, labelling and transparency of origin are not bureaucratic annoyances but signs of respect.