Why Most Content Recommendations Are No Better than Banner Ads

You’ve seen them. They’re the content recommendations “from around the web” that appear at the end of your favorite news story or blog post. They’re meant to offer readers a better web experience by directing them to relevant content. Typically an advertiser pays a website to make the recommendation in order to direct traffic back to the advertiser’s website for whatever reason. Kind of like what advertisers used to use banner ads for.

But banner ads are no longer as effective as they used to be. As a matter of fact, they say “you are more likely to complete NAVY SEAL training than click a banner ad.” So what happened? Early banner ads saw click through rates as high as 40%, but nowadays you’d be lucky to score a .07% clickthrough thanks to a phenomenon dubbed banner blindness. People simply became so frustrated with irrelevant messaging, distracting imagery and low-quality content that they just started filtering out the ads.

Content Recommendations the New Hope

Enter content recommendations. Content recommendations are meant to re-capture the reader’s attention. To begin, they are presented as native advertising, meaning they take on the look and feel of the website where they are being shown. Studies have shown that people view native ads 53% more than banner ads.

Ideally, it should all work like this: you go to your favorite website and read an interesting article. At the end of that article appears a link to similar content that you may find interesting. That “recommended content” provides you with value, meaning it informs, educates or inspires you. In turn, you begin to follow the brand that created the content because it was actually good content. As you discover additional valuable content, you begin to trust that brand and develop a relationship. Eventually when it comes time to make a purchase, you’ll likely choose that brand because you’ve been following them and they’ve always provided you with good information.

In theory, that’s really how content marketing as a whole should work. We create lots of great content. We amplify that content on the websites that our audience likes to visit. They discover that content because it’s relevant and valuable. They continue to follow and engage with the brand. And now you’ve built this great relationship with your prospective customer through content and everyone wins! The advertiser gets what they want (a strong relationship with prospective customers), consumers get a better web experience and publishers can still make money without distracting or annoying their visitors.

Content Recommendations the Actual Reality

Unfortunately, it just don’t work like that. Here’s the current state of the industry:

You go to your favorite website and read a good article. At the end of the article, rather than finding relevant content recommendations, you see things like, “photo fails that will make you cringe” or salacious images. Despite that, you click on the recommendation anyway and it usually brings you to low-quality content that has nothing to do with the original piece you were reading. Obviously, you get very little value from this and typically you just click back on your browser and bounce from the website.

As you can see, the current model does not provide a whole lot of value for anyone. Consumers are not getting that better web experience. They are unable to develop good relationships with brands. And they’re annoyed by the low-quality content. In turn, this can damage the publisher’s credibility since they were the ones who originally recommended the content to the visitor in the first place. Last, the advertiser isn’t really winning because they’re not providing the reader with any value.

How to Change the Game

So why do we keep playing the same game? For starters, publishers get paid every time you click one of those headlines. The cost-per-click model encourages publishers to get you to click on their recommendations. The more clicks, the more revenue they earn. Some of the best ways to garner those clicks is through sensational headlines, clickbait or lewd images. Hence, the garbage that we typically see recommended at the end of our favorite articles.

Second, marketers put too much importance on click through rates. Many marketers judge a campaign’s effectiveness on the number of clicks they can garner. They aren’t looking at bounce rates, time on site or other pages visited. They just want to know how many clicks their article received, when the focus should be on how much engagement the article received. Was it shared, liked or commented on? Those are better indicators of success than clicks. Unfortunately, we typically judge effectiveness based on the number of clicks, meaning publishers will serve the ads that are most likely to get clicked as opposed to what’s relevant to the consumer.

Third, content marketers should know better! The name of the game is providing high-quality content that provides your reader with value. That’s how relationships develop and it’s through relationships that we get our products and services sold. If we continue to create low-quality content that directs readers to spammy content, then content recommendations will eventually suffer the same fate as banner ads.