In March Neil Mody, CEO of nRelate published an open letter on the company's site calling attention to something he sees as a major problem afflicting web content: native advertisement starting down the path to banner blindness. He wrote:
"I've chatted in depth with publishers, journalists, industry analysts and consumers about where the "native ad" space has come from and where it's going. And while I can't speak for every native ad channel, the conclusion I've come to is this: our Discovery niche (content recommendation links that sit below articles), has taken a wrong turn down the path of monetization, echoed by barbed condemnations like, Those F%#&!ng Content Links!"
You all know the links he's talking about. You're reading an article about Crimea and the site is suggesting you read an article about getting "bikini ready" next. But rather than defend the practice, Mody is admitted to being part of the problem and wants to put nRelate on the path to "Content Cleanup". EContent talked to him about the problem and the solution.
Q: Can you start by telling us a bit about what you think is wrong with content discovery as we know it?
A: When publishers first embraced content recommendation links, the promise they held was the ability to provide readers with an element of seamless navigation and content discovery that search engines couldn't.
However, over time, the objective moved beyond serving up additional related content, and the space has increasingly become more of an ad network with publishers monetizing the top of a sales funnel. This is ultimately causing the space to shift from content discovery to content disruption-driven by a single goal to increase clicks.
Q: You've warned that "banner blindness" is on the horizon. Many would argue that it's already here-at least when it comes to traditional banner ads. Can you tell us how you see this playing out for the content discovery business?
A: I'd agree that "banner blindness" is and has been the reality for traditional banner ads for some time. Historically, recommended content that sits below an online article has had a higher click-through and engagement rate when it transparently lead readers to other interesting, relevant, and valuable content-even if it's sponsored.
The danger with the path that a lot of content recommendation has taken toward click bait-style ads is that this content will fall victim to the same reader blindness that traditional ads have experienced over the years. If the industry fails to self-regulate, it could also prompt readers to install more ad-blocking tech and even provoke outside regulation.
Q: How does this all relate to native advertising?
A: Native advertising is a fairly broad term, and one that's been hotly debated. While we focus on one specific channel of the larger ‘native' space, the themes of reader trust apply to all different types of native ads. Whether a publisher features a full-page sponsored article or a single sponsored content link, if the delivered content isn't transparent, interesting, relevant and valuable, the publisher risks losing credibility and reader trust.
Q: Now can you tell us about "Content Clean Up" and what you hope to accomplish?
A: Our "Content Clean Up" campaign is a concerted effort to shine a light on some of the problems with content recommendations and discovery today and is a call-to-action for the entire digital publishing industry to help right the ship.
As a content distribution company, we realized we were part of the problem. One of the first steps we took was to make some changes to our platform that gave publishers direct, fine-grain control over the types of sponsored units that appear aside their editorial content.
We plan to push the campaign forward with continued platform improvements, engagement with publishers and journalists through social channels, and a video series that will further cover the issues. Our goal for this campaign is to help restore the original promise of content discovery and move our niche of content recommendation away from banner blindness.
Q: How can publishers take control of content discovery in a way that will both please readers and make money?
A: That's the billion-dollar question. The most accurate answer in my opinion is that it depends on each individual publisher and site. This is the entire point behind handing control over to publishers.
While click-bait has certainly proven to drive a lot of short-term traffic, if reader trust is breached too far and often, they'll not only ignore recommended content but also seek out news and information from somewhere else completely.
Publishers can work to strike the right balance by exercising the same editorial control over recommended content as they do with other content and allowing in ads that are most appropriate to their readers. While this may affect short-term gains, the long-term opportunity to monetize content will decline as readers simply stop clicking all together.