Just One in Five Consumers Say They Trust Sponsored Content

It’s been a while since we’ve talked about native ads, aka sponsored content. It was big news a few years ago as publishers were searching for new revenue models. Back in 2016, the Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi shared his beliefs that sponsored content was poised to seriously damage the traditional media industry.

“As the traditional media model of advertising continues to break down, publishers are increasingly turning to sponsored content as their savior,” Pulizzi wrote at the time. “And why not? It has led to some amazing turnarounds – including those at The Washington Post and The New York Times.

“So now, media companies that used to shy away from sponsored content opportunities are going all-in. Sponsored content has become the en vogue business model for media,” he continued. “But while this shift is certainly exciting, what it’s actually doing is keeping media companies from seeking out a real business model – one that will help them achieve success over the long term.”

There was another risk cropping up in those discussions, the risk to a brand’s reputation. Even as early as 2014, native ads had a trust problem. A study pointed out some serious shortcomings to native ads, with readers ignoring sponsored content at best (only 24% of readers were scrolling down on native content, compared to 71% of non-sponsored) and feeling deceived by it in most cases (67% of readers felt this way).

Fast forward back to the present, and how are consumer’s feeling?

“Engagement with ‘native’ advertising — more commonly called sponsored content — varies by age, according to a new study from Outbrain,” writes Ray Schultz in PublishersDaily. “While 28% of respondents report having clicked on native ads in the last six months, only 22% trust what they read.”

At least that’s better than Facebook, with hovers at a dismal 17% trust level.

The lack of trust seems to stem from the fact that consumers see it as advertising, not content. (In our minds, that a good thing … it IS advertising in that brands have paid to have it placed). And in general, we don’t trust advertising as much as we trust editorial content, no matter where we find it.

“The majority of ad environments breed distrust among consumers,” points out Arnon Sobol, vice president, global business strategy-data solutions at Outbrain.

It’s an interesting dilemma. Brands are creating some really interesting content and placing it as native ads … but it’s being lumped into the general pool of “advertising,” where it immediately loses significant value.

This is bringing about a sea change on some levels, as publishers realize the integrity of their brand is worth far more than the revenue stream they stood to gain by offering up native ad space. And as brand publishing continues to raise the bar and bring in excellent ROI, there’s a new model to emulate. Instead of clawing their way to digital revenue through sketchy native ad tactics, publishers and advertisers today are working in partnership to create some great custom editorial content that resonates well with their readers.

It’s been fascinating watching this evolve over the past few years. At the end of the day, trust is huge; it’s everything when you’re trying to build real relationships with your audience. The key, as I’ve said again and again, is transparency. We are increasingly cognizant of where our news is coming from, on all channels. For brands, this means no more sacrificing reputation for eyeballs and credibility for clicks. And that’s a good thing for everyone.