Digital Advertising: Trust, Clarity, and Experience Are in Peril

There is a whiff of desperation to the web these days. You detect hints of it when you see click-bait headlines occur with more frequency higher up the online content tail. You can sniff it when increasingly weird and off-topic "recommended for you" articles occupy the sidebar to major news sites. Did that "secret to vanquishing belly fat" article/ad really have anything to do with the news piece on National Security Agency (NSA) security breaches? What algorithm sees the contextual relevance in that? If targeting technology has become as complex and sophisticated as we have all been reporting, then why is recommendation spam more the rule than the exception?

You see it in the feature well. I am as accustomed to online content marketing and sponsored posts as anyone. But some "articles" make me look twice and thrice to distinguish them from the formal editorial content. The "sponsored by" and "brought to you by" typefaces are getting lighter and lighter, tucked ever further from view. The typefaces and heading that are supposed to demarcate the sponsored from the editorial content are getting harder to decipher. Publishers may try to rationalize much of their native advertising as sufficiently labeled and, as such, permissible. And the overall industry rationalization is that consumers are savvier than critics of the practice think they are.

But let's stop kidding ourselves. These are ads. Sure, there are cases where editors work with advertisers to craft genuinely entertaining and edifying branded content. But most often this is just an ad in sheep's clothing. Worse, publishers are playing coy. By design, these placements rely on the reader mistaking the ad for content coming directly from the publisher. In most of the implementations of native advertising I have seen at both top tier and midtier publishers, the ad labeling is done with a wink and a nod. When publishers and advertisers argue the consumer is savvy enough to handle these integrations, I wonder if what they really mean is that they think the consumer is just too cynical to care.

Beyond the erosion of trust between reader and content provider, we are also seeing an overall degradation of the online experience. The 2013 holiday season, in the midst of which I write this, will probably set another record for online ad spend. Ecommerce continues to boom, and physical retail is doing everything it can across all channels to salvage foot traffic. But what did all of that ad spend buy us? The explosion of increasingly intrusive and technically weighty ad units higher up the content tail was noticeable last season.

Enormous expandable banners can take up an entire screen, making the reader chase back up their chosen article when the ad finally retreats. Roadblock ads have become commonplace for many leading sites. Now, we are even seeing microscopic and even deceptive "close" buttons that force click-throughs we never intended. I often find myself feeling a bit of pity for the advertisers. Who is counting legitimate impressions, video plays, and supposed engagements for the media buyer? Speaking as a consumer who feels as if he is playing dodgeball navigating around ad units, I will attest that most of these pesky views should not be counted. Whatever "time spent" is being recorded by the ad verification company was likely time spent scrambling to find the hidden close button or hit the mute switch before anyone nearby hears the ad.

On a technical basis alone, the weight and complexity of these bad experiences is breaking sites and introducing ridiculous load times and load failures. Is this really what a mature media experience looks like? Is this what the economic success of digital media buys? I thought digital media was aiming toward more seamless, predictable, and standardized experiences. Toward less ad clutter and more visible ads giving singular shares of voice. I thought native advertising acknowledged that advertisers needed to do less advertising and more informing.

Subjective as it may be, this user's experience leaves me more than just a little distrustful. More than the clear breaches of ad labeling, intrusiveness, or church-and-state violations, it is the steady, slow diminution of the overall online experience that is depressing. No wonder so many of us devote prime time to tablet and smartphone browsing. The media and ad industries haven't figured out how to break these platforms yet.