To people of a certain (relatively young) age, I suspect the proliferation of ads on social networks barely registers. To those of us who have been following the digital space for a few years, however, it’s little short of incredible.
I can remember a time, barely five years ago, when questions were asked as to whether social networks in general, and Facebook in particular, could ever make money from advertising. By definition, social networks –so the argument went –were places where people went to socialise, not to be sold to.
Yet, look at the situation today and most of the big news around advertising – the positive news, leaving ad blocking, fraud and viewability to one side for a moment - is all about the social networks.
Whether it’s Facebook with its Canvas mobile ad unit launched last month; Pinterest launching promoted pins in the UK (today); brands being offered the ability to target micro-influencers - people with 10,000 followers – programmatically on Instagram or Snapchat; or the likes of Vogue and the BBC using WhatsApp to send out breaking news alerts... All of the really fun, creative and interesting stuff in the digital ad space right now seems to revolve around social. Which, of course, means it also revolves around mobile, since this is where most people spend their time with social networks.
So how did we get from there to here? From a position where ads on social networks are a no-no to one where Facebook is cleaning up and with 80 per cent of its revenues coming from mobile?
The answer, to no-one’s great surprise, is native. And herein, to my mind, lies the great irony. Because for years, advertisers and their agencies – the better ones at least - have been trying to make ads that don’t look like ads. Ads that function as entertainment or even documentary, something that makes you think. And they could afford to do that because on TV, for example, the ads appear between programmes and are thus obviously not part of the editorial content.
In print, meanwhile, every magazine or newspaper has its own house style and the ads naturally look different enough to this as to differentiate them as advertising content. To the extent that when an advertiser wants to make his ad look less like an ad, the magazine or newspaper publisher is obliged to flag it as such with the phrase ‘Advertising Feature’ or something similar at the top of the page.
And this is where the irony kicks in. Because native advertising, in order to stay on the right side of the law, has had to do exactly the same thing. Those native ads that look so similar to what you see in your news feed have to be flagged as ‘Sponsored’ or ‘Suggested’ or ‘Promoted’ – or else the Advertising Standards Authority would be all over them like a rash.
So with clickthrough rates (CTRs) on banner ads crawling along at a fraction of a percentage (and an abundance of said banners driving record downloads of ad blocking tools), CTRs from those native ads – the ones where you have to tell people this is an ad they are looking at – are going through the roof, if the reports are to be believed.
So unless you subscribe to the school of thought that says that people just don’t notice the ‘Sponsored’ tag and most clicks are accidental (in which case they would surely backtrack before completing whatever the call to action is) the moral of the story surely has to be that those consumers are not as dumb as we think they are, and also not as anti-advertising as we fear they might be. Even on social networks, where, as mentioned earlier, the theory was that they went to socialise and not to buy stuff.
So while I’m a big fan of ads that don’t look like ads – Guinness, Cinzano in the ‘70s – native ads, it seems to me, work not because people don’t realise they are ads, but actually, because people are left in no doubt that they are. So the advertisers that use them are actually being rewarded, in a roundabout probably-forced-on-them-by-the-law sort of way, for their honesty. Who’d have thought it?