Native Advertising, Sponsored Content and “Truthiness”

There are just a few slight problems with sponsored content:  Readers consider it less trustworthy … and value it less.

Lack of trust in sponsored content

It’s really not that interesting — and I don’t trust you, anyway.

Here’s a behavioral statistic that should be a little disconcerting to marketers:  Only about one in four readers scroll down on sponsored content (native advertising) on publisher websites.

Compare that to ~70% of those same readers who scroll down on other types of news content.

That’s what the chief executive officer of Chartbeat, a developer and purveyor of real-time web analytics software for media publishers, has contended, leading others to try to probe these attitudes further and try to find out more about the dynamics that are at work.

One such effort is online field research conducted this past summer by Contently, a freelance writing services clearinghouse.  It discovered that the difference in engagement levels relates to “trust.”

Generally speaking, readers trust sponsored content a whole lot less than they do “normal” content.

More specifically, here’s what Contently’s research, which targeted ~550 U.S. adults ages 18 to 65, found in terms of trust attitudes:

  • I generally don’t trust sponsored content: ~54%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the brand already: ~22%
  • I trust the content only if I trust the publication: ~19%
  • I generally trust sponsored content:  ~5%

It gets even murkier when we consider that not all readers agree on the same definition of “sponsored content.”

While the largest proportion of people consider “sponsored content” on a news website to be an article that an advertiser paid to be created as well as had input into its content, it was only a plurality of respondents:

  •  A sponsor paid and influenced the article: ~48%
  • A news site wrote it, but a sponsor paid money for it to run: ~20%
  • A sponsor paid for its name to appear next to news content: ~18%
  • A sponsor wrote the article:  ~13%

And here’s a real kick in the gut:  More people in the Contently survey would rather be served “bad ol’ banner ads” than encounter sponsored news and other posts:

  • Would rather see banner ads:  ~57% of respondents
  • Prefer sponsored posts because banner ads are annoying: ~26%
  • Prefer sponsored posts because they’re more interesting than banner ads: ~18%

The findings aren’t much different based on the age or education levels of respondents, either.

If anything, more highly educated people (those with graduate degrees) are most likely to prefer banner ads over sponsored posts.  The reason boils down to concern over the issue of deception:  A large majority of respondents reported that they have ever “felt deceived” upon realizing an article was actually sponsored by an advertiser.

Considering the disapproving numbers collected in the survey, it’s not surprising that Contently also found that respondents are far prone to click on a piece of sponsored content compared to other content:

  • Less likely to click on sponsored content: ~66%
  • More likely: ~1%
  • Equally likely: ~33%

credible sourceLastly, publishers should take note that their credibility is being diminished in the eyes of many, based on the practice of publishing native advertising.  The Contently survey found that nearly 60% expressed the view that publishers lose credibility when they run such sponsored content.

Of course, native advertising and sponsored content isn’t going to go away.  It’s too wrapped up in today’s business models for successful publishing and successful brand engagement.

But it’s clear that publishers, advertisers and the brands they represent have a bigger hurdle to clear in order for their content to be considered worthy of their readers’ attention and engagement.

Harris Poll: What Americans say they want in news coverage.

When it comes to the news, Americans say they’re tired of so much attention on celebrity gossip and scandal stories … but are they really?

news mediaExperience has shown that healthy foods on the menu at fast food establishments test well in consumer attitudinal surveys — only to bomb big time when actually introduced.

It seems as though many people answer the way they think they’re “supposed” to respond, even though they’ll never actually opt for the apple slices in lieu of the order of fries.

I wonder if the same dynamics are at work in a recent Harris Poll, which queried ~2,500 Americans age 18 or over about their preferences for news topics.  The online survey was conducted in August 2014, with the results released this past week.

For starters, three-fourths of the respondents felt that celebrity gossip and scandal stories receive too much coverage.

Indeed, many believe that entertainment news in general receives too much attention in the news:

  • Celebrity gossip and scandal stories: ~76% claim too much attention is paid in the news
  • Entertainment news in general: ~49%
  • Professional spectator sports: ~44%
  • Politics and elections: ~33%

And which topics do people feel aren’t covered sufficiently in the news? It’s everything that’s “good for you”:

  • Education topics: ~47% believe too little attention is paid in the news
  • Local/national humanitarian issues: ~47%
  • Science topics: ~45%
  • Government corruption and scandals: ~44%
  • Corporate corruption and white collar crime: ~42%
  • Global humanitarian issues: ~33%
  • Health topics: ~30%

I suspect that the “actual reality” is different from how the survey participants responded. If news organizations weren’t seeing keen interest generated by their celebrity, entertainment and sports stories, they would stop producing them.  Simple as that.

Harris Poll logoYou can view more findings from the Harris survey, including data tabulations, here. Among the interesting findings is the degree of trust people have for various different news media:  network TV news, local TV news, local newspapers, national newspapers, online news sources.

Hint: trust levels are nearly where they should be …

What are your thoughts about news topics? Which ones are getting proper coverage versus too much?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Organic Search: Still King of the Hill in Generating Web Traffic

online searchingIn recent years, the focus on “content marketing” has become stronger than ever: the notion of attracting traffic via the inherent relevance of the content contained on a website rather than through other means.

It seems eminently logical.  But content marketing is also relatively labor-intensive to build and to maintain. So there’s always been an effort to drive web traffic through “quicker and easier” methods as well.

But the newest findings on web traffic really do demonstrate how fundamental good content is to meeting the challenge of generating web traffic.

An analysis by web analytics and measurement firm BrightEdge reveals that organic search (SEO) drives over half of all traffic to websites (both business-to-business and business-to-consumer).

By contrast, paid search (SEM) accounts for only one-fifth of SEO’s result, and social is lower still:

  • Organic search: Generates ~51% of all web traffic
  • Paid search: ~10%
  • Social media: ~5%
  • All other methods (e.g., display advertising, e-mail and referred): ~34%

Web traffic driversSource:  BrightEdge, 2014. 

In other words, all forms of advertising put together don’t drive as much traffic as organic search.

The BrightEdge statistics also remind us that social media, however popular it may be to millions of people, isn’t a highly effective traffic generator like search. Here are some of the key reasons why:

  • Social shares are fleeting and can get drowned out easily.
  • Most users don’t go on a social platform, only then to click on different links that take them away from social.
  • Not everyone uses social media, whereas everyone uses a search engine of some kind when they’re in “investigative” mode.

That’s the thing:  People use SEO when they’re seeking answers and solutions — often in the form of a product or a service.  Unlike in social or online display advertising, there’s no need to “disrupt” the user’s intended activity.

And if you’re in the B-to-B realm, organic search even more prevalent:  Organic search drives ~73% of all web traffic there.

Even consumer categories like retail, entertainment and hospitality find that organic search is responsible for attracting 40% or more of all web traffic.

The takeaway for companies is that any marketing strategy that doesn’t adopt “content development” as a core tactic instead of an “ornamentation” is probably destined to fall well-short of its full potential.

The “App Gap”: Mobile Apps Overtake All Others in Digital Media Consumption

Mobile apps overtaking other digital media consumptionIt was bound to happen.

The bulk of time Americans are spending on digital media … is now happening on mobile applications.

According to data released this past week by Internet and digital analytics firm comScore, the combined time that people expend using digital media breaks down as follows:

  • Mobile apps: ~52% of all time spent online
  • Mobile web surfing: ~8%
  • Desktop: ~40%

Apps are clearly in the driver’s seat – particularly in the mobile realm.  In fact, comScore estimates that apps account for 7 out of every 8 minutes spent on mobile devices.

On smartphones, the app usage is ~88% of all time spent, whereas on tablets, it’s ~82%.

This doesn’t mean that app usage is spread evenly throughout the population of people who are online.  Far from it.  Only about one-third of people download one app per month or more.  (The average smartphone user is downloading about three apps per month.)

The inevitable conclusion:  App usage is highly concentrated among a subset of the population.

Indeed, the 7% most active smartphone owners account for almost half of all the download activity during any given month.

But even if most users aren’t downloading all that many apps … they are certainly engaged with the ones they do have on their devices:  comScore reports that nearly 60% are using apps every day.

Here again, the data show that usage levels are much higher among smartphone users than they are with tablet users (where only about one quarter of the people use apps daily).

Where they’re spending their time is also interesting.  Well over 40% of all app time spent on smartphones is with a user’s single most used app.  (Facebook takes top honors — of course.)

And if you combine social networking, games and Internet radio, you’ve pretty much covered the waterfront when it comes to app usage.

When you think about it, none of this should come as much surprise.  We’re a mobile society – hourly, daily, monthly and yearly.  It only makes sense that most online time is going to be happening when people are away from their home or their desk, now that it’s so easy to be connected so easily from even the tiniest mobile devices.

And speaking of “easy” … is it really any wonder why people would flock to apps?  It’s less hassle to open up an app for news or information rather than searching individual sites via mobile.  People simply don’t have the patience for that anymore.

Media properties’ new formula: Publish … re-publish … and publish yet again.

RepublishingAs media properties have moved away from finite schedules of daily, weekly or monthly publication to something more akin to 24/7 content dissemination, it’s becoming quite a challenge to deliver new content.

The reality is, building a digital media property in today’s “always on” world that can successfully deliver new, original content on an ongoing basis is quite costly.

In fact, it’s economically unfeasible for many if not most publishing enterprises.

This explains why readers have started to see a parade of news items that have been reused, recycled or repurposed in an effort to present the items as “fresh” news multiple times over.

This is happening with greater regularly, and it’s seemingly getting more prevalent with every passing day.

Here’s a representative case:  Business Insider.  This finance and news site has doubled its traffic over the past several years.  Business Insider now attracts more than 12 million unique visitors each month – each of them presumably interested in consuming “fresh news.”

But for content that is fairly “evergreen” in nature, Business Insider is perfectly content to serve up the same (or nearly similar) stories two … three … four times or more.

For example, one of its stories, “Facts About McDonald’s That Will Blow Your Mind,” has been published no fewer than six times over a span of three years.

The various iterations of that article varied very little each time.  Sometimes there were a different number of facts presented (usually 15 or 16).  Business Insider even published the identical list twice in the same year, using the exact same headline while revising only the introductory paragraph.

Beyond the fact that publishing essentially the same article six times within three years took some of the burden off the news-gathering and writing team, it turns out that topics such as this one really do engage readers — time and again.

Business Insider’s first iteration of the McDonald’s article attracted more than 2.5 million views.  And overall, the story has been clicked on more than 8 million times.

(Of course, the final time the article ran, the story generated only around 400,000 views, so at some point the law of diminishing returns had to come into play.)

articleI like another example, too:  Cosmopolitan Magazine.  In April of this year, it published an article titled “25 Life-Changing Ways to Use Q-tips.”  That story generated only 44 shares — hardly earth-shattering results for a media property with over 3 million subscribers.

But then Cosmopolitan promoted the article on Pinterest in May … and also on Twitter in May and again in June … and on Facebook in early May and again there in early June.

Whereas Cosmopolitan’s original posting of the article on its own website didn’t result in much engagement to speak of, just the two Facebook posts resulted in nearly 1,500 shares.

With these kinds of results being generated, it’s no wonder publishers have decided to “publish … re-publish … and then publish again.”

So the next time you have a sensation of déjà vu about reading an article, chances are, you’re not dreaming.

Print magazine startups: Hope springs eternal.

print publicationsI’ve blogged before about the number of print magazine launches versus closures in the age of the Internet.

Now the latest report from media database clearinghouse Oxbridge Communications shows that when it comes to this most traditional form of media … hope springs eternal.

In fact, Oxbridge is reporting that in the first half of this year, new magazine start-ups outstripped those that ceased publication – and by a substantial margin.

The Oxbridge database, which includes U.S. and Canadian publications, shows that 93 magazines were launched in the first half of 2014, versus just 30 that were shuttered.

True, this represents a lower number of start-ups than is the historical average … but it’s also a lower number of closures.

What specialty audiences are being targeted by these new pubs?

In the continuation of an existing trend, there’s growth in new “regional interest” magazines such as 12th & Broad (aimed at the creative community in the Nashville metro area) and San Francisco Cottages & Gardens.

Food and drink is another category of growing interest, with publications like Barbecue America and Craft Beer & Brewing hitting the streets for the first time.

And why not?  Despite ever-changing consumer tastes and interests, all of us continue to share at least one fundamental trait:  We eat!

But on a cautionary note, the smaller list of magazine closures do include two vaunted “historic” titles:  Jet (Johnson Publishing) and Ladies’ Home Journal (Meredith).

These closures underscore the point that the magazine industry shakeup continues – and who knows what other famous titles might cease publication during the second half of the year.

As for the biggest reason behind the magazine closures … isn’t it obvious?  It’s decreased advertising revenue.

Continuing a trend that’s been happening for the better part of a decade now, Publishers Information Bureau reports that total magazine ad pages declined another 4% in the First Quarter of 2014 as compared to the same quarter of last year.

For the record, that’s 28,567 ad pages for all U.S. and Canadian publications.

While that figure may seem like a healthy total, it’s not enough to sustain the total number of publications out there.

The harsh reality is that print journalism remains dramatically more expensive than digital production.  Unless a magazine can obtain enough subscribers to justify its ad rates, the only other way it can survive is to cover its costs via a “no-advertising” business model.

The vast majority of subscribers will never pay the full cost to produce a print publication.  And with more free information resources than ever available to them online, many people aren’t particularly inclined to commit to even a subsidized subscription rate.

Indeed, the wealth of free information means it’s more difficult these days even to get qualified business readers to subscribe to free B-to-B pubs that target their own industry or markets.

What changing dynamics would portend a shift in the downward trajectory?  It would be nice to anticipate a bottoming-out followed by a turnaround.

Unfortunately, if the past five years have demonstrated anything, it’s that there may be no “natural bottom” when it comes to diminishing advertising revenues in the print magazine business.

Craigslist: The $5 billion juggernaut that crippled an industry.

Craigslist logoIt’s common knowledge that the business model for newspapers started going awry in a major way with the decline in newspaper classified advertising.

Craigslist played a huge role in that development, as the online classifieds site went about methodically entering one urban market after another across the United States.

And now we have quantification of just how impactful Craigslist’s role was.  It comes in the form of a May 2013 study authored by Robert Seamans of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Feng Zhu of the University of Southern California.

Titled Responses to Entry in Multi-Sided Markets:  The Impact of Craigslist on Local Newspapers, the study explored the dynamics at play over the period 2000-2007, focusing on newspapers’ degree of reliance on classifieds at the time of Craigslist’s entry into their markets.

What the researchers found was that those newspapers that relied heavily on classified ads for revenue experienced more than a 20% decline in classified advertising rates following Craigslist’s entry into their markets.

But that isn’t all:  The outmigration of classified advertising to Craigslist was accompanied by other negative trend lines — an increase of subscription prices (up 3%+) and lowering circulation figures (down nearly 5%).

Even newspaper display advertising rates fell by approximately 3%.

Were these developments “cause” or “effect”?  The study’s authors posit that fewer classified ads may have diminished the incentive for people to purchase the newspapers.  Also, display advertising rates tend to track circulation figures, so once the “decline cycle” started, it was bound to continue.

The study concludes that by offering buyers and sellers a free classified ad alternative to paid listings in newspapers, Craigslist saved users approximately $5 billion over the seven-year period.

Those dollars came right out of the hides of the newspapers, of course … and changed the print newspaper industry for good.

But here’s the thing:  The experience of the newspaper industry has relevance beyond just them.  “The boundaries between media industries are blurred and advertisers are able to reach consumers through a variety of platforms such as TV, the Internet and mobile devices,” the authors write.

The unmistakable message to others in the media is this:  It could happen to you, too.

A full summary of the Seamans/Zhu report can be found here.

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