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We need to talk about native advertising

Native advertising: a stroke of genius to some, an unsettling deception to others.

Native advertising: a stroke of genius to some, an unsettling deception to others. Chelsea Wallis explores the inner workings of this controversial practice and asks the question: is native advertising a solution for everyone?

You’re here because you and I, we’re ideas people. We are keen observers of the tools developing in the publishing market that will help our organisations to perform at the highest calibre. We like to take a chance on an idea because even mistakes can inspire.

One of those ideas getting a lot of attention is native advertising, and the reviews are polarised. Take a look:

So is native advertising a money-making idea your association can use – or is it a big mistake?

Get the definition right

Native advertising is often tossed in a bubbling cauldron with an array of brand/publisher collaborative options. These include: sponsored ads in your Twitter or Facebook feeds; paid search engine returns; or widgets at the bottom of an article that are “recommended for you”.

For our purposes, native advertising is content paid for by an advertiser and created by a publisher to display the same voice and look as the rest of the content on the publisher’s platform – whether that platform be print or digital in nature. It’s similar to the advertorial, an ad that attempts to look like an article, and is often still mistaken for one.

The current pin-up for how to do it comes from the New York Times. Its story Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work is sponsored by Netflix in promotion of its hit series Orange is the New Black, which is about the fictional lives of women inmates.


But don’t assume that all native advertising content looks just like this. Every publication has a different audience and style. Consider BuzzFeed, run completely on sponsored content. In a campaign for Nestea, the online publisher rolled out a series of loosely connected listicles in promotion of the drink brand’s simply refreshing campaign.

BuzzFeed-native-advertising  Nestea-native-advertising

For native advertising to work, it seems, it’s important to establish that the advertiser and the publisher are on the same page with the content provided and the overall content strategy.

Avoid deception

It’s a practice embroiled in industry-wide controversy. The biggest issue with native advertising is the blurred lines between advertising and content, lines that run a high risk of making the reader feel deceived.

The ability to separate paid content and objective content brings up quite an ethical dilemma.

In the worst of all possible worlds, let’s say a journalist at reputable news magazine XYZ prints a story about a company recalling the dangerous Widget. Later in the same magazine, a native ad has a two-page spread promoting the Legit, the biggest rival to Widgets. If the reader doesn’t realise the second article is advertising, the brand and the publication are guilty of some serious misinformation and false advertising.

The Conversation did a series on native advertising earlier this year, one of which said:

“Using one’s talents in the service of marketing and PR instead of true journalism is an attractive option when struggling to find paid work. But it is worth thinking about the long-term consequences of native advertising’s expansion, not just for publishing and journalism but also for our lives as information consumers.”

Ouch. Can a reader tell the difference between when a journalist is speaking objectively and writing on the payroll of the advertiser? Hard to say.

Some research suggests even the lesser evil of making the reader feel deceived – a feeling created at the precise moment at which they discover they’ve just spent time reading an ad – can alienate the brand and publisher from their cherished audience. Content marketing company Contently suggests that more than half of readers have felt deceived upon realising an article or video was sponsored by a brand, don’t trust sponsored content and believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by a brand.

And still more alarming, readers may not even care if the content is paid or not, let alone know what “sponsor” means in the context of sponsored content.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that behind every good idea is a list of mistakes. To avoid falling into the ninth circle of hell, let’s take a look at a native ad that didn’t quite get it right.

The Atlantic online, a news analysis site, ran sponsored content for the Church of Scientology, touting a record expansion of the church under 2012 leadership. The content was in stark contrast to the usual Atlantic content. The Washington Post said in fewer than 12 hours the publisher had apologised to its outraged audience and taken the article down.

In the vein of learning from mistakes, I have yet to see a survey that asks audiences one final question: once you’ve felt deceived, do you abandon the brand forever? Do you lose all faith in the site and never go back? I suspect there is a middle ground yet to be explored and a timeline of trust that can be rebuilt if things do fall through.

But some brands simply aren’t suitable candidates for native advertising. The lesson here is: be true to your audience. Full stop.

Hold the moral high ground

On the other hand, there’s a reason native advertising has become a buzzword. There are a number of brands and publications for whom this collaboration is working, from BuzzFeed and the New York Times to Vox and Monocle – the latter being praised by DigiDay and the founder of Skift as a masterclass in native advertising.

Is the anecdote true? Did the story entertain? If someone didn’t notice it was an ad, is it going to be a reprise of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast? Or are they just going to think some slow-motion pictures of popping water balloons are cool?

Moreover, will your audience forgive you if they feel duped in the name of advertising?

So, is native advertising for you?

I think a colleague of mine got it right when he said: in principle, native advertising should be immediately distinguishable as an ad and the content is fact checked by the publisher. Done right, it should provide more value to the reader – the intersection between the publication’s original audience and those in the audience who might benefit from the product or service.

In the best of all possible online worlds, it will occupy readers longer and improve time-on-site stats for publishers.

The format has its pitfalls and its advantages. So, is it what you’re looking for?

The world’s most respected media companies are collaborating with brands to create sponsored content.
If you’re willing to embrace content-led advertising the changing landscape is an exciting challenge.
It’s the ultimate goal for content marketing. Turn your content into a revenue source.
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