Study: Sponsored Content Has a Trust Problem

Native advertising and sponsored content are big business these days, with the vast majority of publishers offering some kind of native ad opportunities, writes Joe Lazauskas of Contently, a content strategy firm.

Yet a recent study points up the major shortcomings of the idea, 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).

“It was a damning indictment of the quality of sponsored content at large,” Lazauskas concludes. So Contently decided to dig a bit deeper and ask some specific questions of their own.

Their findings are quite an eye opener to publishers:

  • By a margin of 3:1, readers would prefer their favorite news sites ran banner ads instead of sponsored content, citing transparency as a big reason. This held true across all age groups, even digital natives.
  • The more educated your readers, the more likely they are to dislike sponsored content. Readers with graduate degrees preferred banner ads almost 7:1. “As education levels increase, so too does the likelihood of a respondent feeling deceived by a piece of branded content,” notes Lazauskas.
  • More than half of the readers reported they generally don’t trust sponsored content, while 41% said they only trust it if they already trust the publication (18%) or the brand (23%). Less than 5% of readers stated that yes, they generally trust sponsored content.

“For publishers, all this brings up a big question: How is sponsored content affecting the way readers think of them? Are they losing credibility? The majority of respondents—59 percent—said that news sites are losing credibility when they run articles sponsored by a brand,” Lazauskas notes.

“Ultimately, however, this may not just be a brand problem or a native advertising problem, but an issue of reader trust with agenda-influenced publishers overall. We asked respondents to rank how often they trust of content from brands, content from MSNBC, and content from Fox News on a scale of,” Lazauskas continues.

They noted that, in spite of readers’ distrust of sponsored content, “stories from brands were deemed more trustworthy than content from Fox News, and were barely edged out by MSNBC.”

(This fact by itself raises huge questions about the credibility of news organizations and their often blatant agendas.)

Finally, in a shout out to the continuing gravitas of printed media, respondents ranked printed newspapers and printed magazines as generally containing the highest quality content compared to blogs, brand sites, and news sites.

Clearly sponsored content remains a hot-button issue, and until publishers find a way to address the trust issue and credibility gap, they run a huge risk of alienating their readers and devaluing their brand.