Content marketing is being hailed as the holy grail of customer acquisition. In a nutshell, Content Marketing is about building trust with your customers by providing them with content that nurtures not only their understanding of your product, but also on some key strategic themes that places you as a “thought leader”.

This type of advertising is not new. This has been done to some extent for many years, traditionally known as advertorials.

A bit of background on the industry. Publishers spend years building trust with their readers providing insightful and (hopefully) unbiased content. It is well known in the ad industry the tight grip that editorial teams have over the “content area” of their pages, typically on the centre-left side of a web page and how they fend off ad teams from infiltrating their space. On the other hand, ads have typically lived on the right hand side, top and bottom of article pages. That’s the ad team’s territory and $ is king.

Over time, ad-tech providers have gone through endless tactics trying to grab users’ attention. From the pop-up days of hell, to hover links, flash banners, sliders, you name it. This was in reaction to users becoming increasingly “blind” to ads.

It is no wonder that users have become blind to ads. They get in the way and half the time they have little to do with their interests. Some take ages to load and frequently the ad takes you to a page which has little to do with the original message in the ad… and sometimes (shock!), the ad even takes the user to a page infested with malware! (But wait a minute; I just clicked on an ad in a publication with years of reputable history. How did I end up here? Where is the quality control? Who is serving and hosting that malicious ad?). Due to user blindness, traditional ad inventory now has an average CTR (Click-Through-Rate) of 0.1% down from 2% (or higher) in the early days of advertising.

With this declining performance ad-tech providers have continued to come up with “innovative” ways to grab users’ attention. The problem is that trust is damaged so most of these cool ideas are short lived, or worse, users are emigrating to ad-blocking tools ‘en masse.’

Enter the latest trend to fix the problem, Native Advertising and Content Marketing.

Native Advertising is the integration of ads into a publisher’s website where the ads are designed with the look and feel of the publishers site. This immediately builds a sense of trust with users and they become less “blind” to these ads. Publishers are under a lot of pressure to continue getting ad-revenue. So editorial teams have recently added more native looking ads in order to get the revenue they need.

Native ads take different forms including recommendation units at the bottom of articles and in-feed units where the ads are directly embedded into the newsfeed, etc. However, there is a problem with this ad format. Users can feel betrayed by their news or content provider. Editorial sections are no longer 100% editorial and users end up clicking on an ad thinking it is content from the publisher. This problem is particularly bad if those ads or content are not of good quality.

Content Marketing. Essentially, it is the production of content to ultimately advertise a product or a service to an audience. This content is (hopefully) of high quality and of true value-add to the consumer. Where the customer learns something new and their esteem for that brand increases. Nice!

So, how do you kill your own brand with content? Well on the advertiser side it is very simple. Produce poor quality content or deceive your users and it won’t take long until they stop trusting you. Same goes for publishers’ content.

On the other hand, you have the publishers who write good content and have a good reputation, some may have TV channels, 0000s of Twitter followers, etc. The publishers who use ads to fund their content. Where is the problem? In short, click-bait & quality-control.

A substantial % of the ads in some native and content recommendation units have what is called click-bait. These ads have some shocking [;)] headlines that tease users’ curiosity only to find that a) the article was not shocking and b) the article bore little relation to the headline. There are some good articles on the psychology of why users click on these time and time again; This article by Bryan Gardiner on Wired is an interesting read. This other one by Casey Newton on The Verge is also useful.

Then you have quality control. Quite often some of the new native/content ad networks have, speaking frankly, rubbish ads and rubbish content which ultimately gives the user (yes you guessed it), a rubbish experience. To recap, we are saying that a user landed on a rubbish site with rubbish content, teased by a click-bait ad, which looked like it was part of that decades old publisher’s content? Yup, that is happening today, and that is how, as a publisher, you kill your brand. Endorsing these ads by working with native ad networks which are plagued with poor content and clickbait (which sometimes even puts your users one or two clicks away from malware) that betray your users’ trust.

Like with any type of advertising, there is nothing inherently wrong with native and content advertising. It can be of great value to users who can learn useful things. Like for example, how to make the perfect Christmas cake written by an upmarket supermarket, when to book your flights more cheaply written by a travel search engine or how to prepare for your retirement, written by a reputable bank.

Solution? Native and Content advertising requires the publisher to police, more than ever, who is advertising on their pages. Another way to think about it, if you had a printed version of your content, would you allow those bad ads to be printed? The answer is probably no. That is why in many cases the quality of ads in printed media eclipses that of digital. Now, you can sniff out the bad guys yourself or you can make your life easier by working with people who have quality advertisers and whose interests are aligned with yours.

Final thought: Treat your users’ experience with care and focus on delivering quality at all levels of the experience. Especially at the ad level, it pays the bills.