Blurred Lines: Are we Being Naïve about Native (Advertising)

Today’s post is by Peppercomm president, Ted Birkhahn.

It’s Advertising WeekForbes so let’s talk advertising. One of the hottest topics sweeping the marketing industry is the recent proliferation of native advertising platforms. Some folks love it; others think it’s heresy. As with any new phenomenon, there’s a lot of hype and not enough fact so I figured it might help to break down the pros, cons and significant risks associated with putting sponsored content alongside earned media.

Here are the facts as I see them. Feel free to disagree:
•    Publishers get to make more money. This is precisely why so many are practically tripping over themselves to create and sell space on native ad platforms. It feels a bit like the beginning of a gold rush. They know they’re onto something but haven’t quite assessed the risks that might come back to haunt them. For now, they’re testing the concept, enjoying early signs of success (mostly judged by quantitative metrics) and generating some much needed revenue along the way.
•    Brands have a lot of potential upside here. Now they can tap into high-traffic web platforms as a vehicle to deliver the content they think their audiences want to read, share and discuss. Their challenge is to come up the content; good, hard-hitting content that is as relevant and interesting as the editorial coverage that it sits adjacent to on the platform. To do this consistently and credibly is not easy for many marketing departments.  They must think and act like publishers, which is no simple feat.
•    Readers are in a precarious position. On the one hand, native ad platforms should provide readers with supplemental content that will resonate with their interests. On the other hand, with the lines blurring between editorial and paid content, the risk of confusing the reader and eroding their trust in the publisher and advertiser is real, not to mention their perception of a brand who doesn’t get it right.
•    Journalists lose. I’m not a reporter, but I know many of them and I have to think most are appalled at the concept of native advertising. It might help pay their salaries, but it flies in the face of the very purpose and mission of unbiased, no holds barred journalism. Many skeptics, including Gerard Baker, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, support this notion. Jeff Jarvis recently railed against native advertisers and the publishing community while David Carr also jumped into the discussion. Their church and state lines are as bright as ever.

There’s got to be a happy balance. But to achieve one, each party must play a role. Publishers need to respect the separation of paid and earned media and not destroy the balance for the sake of near-term profits. Brands must be overtly transparent about where the content comes from and they owe it to the media ecosystem to produce strong content; marketing copy and self-serving copy won’t cut it here. Readers must police; they must monitor the publishing community and the brands that advertise and never hesitate to call them out when either begin to blur the lines. As for journalists, they need to do what they’ve always done: be a necessary thorn in their publishers’ sides by keeping them honest and ensuring the trust between the reader and reporter is never jeopardized.

And it wouldn’t be a party without the regulators. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it was beginning to explore the issue with a series of workshops later this year. Any rule changes or enforcement actions will take be slow in coming but it’s notable that in such a short amount of time the FTC has put this on their radar screen.

Where do you net out on this issue? Is native advertising generally good for the parties involved or inherently evil? It’s an evolving issue and we’d love to hear your thoughts.

12 thoughts on “Blurred Lines: Are we Being Naïve about Native (Advertising)

  1. I’m struggling to name just one, Ted. Btw, is native advertising named in honor of Native Americans? Is it possible smoke signals contained thinly-veiled advertising messages as well as a tribe’s news of the day?

  2. TedX: let’s do some native advertising on the Peppercomm web site and see if we can fool people such as Bedrock, Lunchboy & Matt (great name for a law firm, btw).

  3. I’m not sure that the WSJ’s hands are totally clean in this respect, if you look at their daily newsletters such as “Risk & Compliance Journal” and “CIO Journal.” Yes, they clearly indicate sponsored content, but it is formatted and positioned in such a way as to blur the lines. This is just the way the business is going – they need ad revenue and organizations want to provide more in the way of thought leadership content as traditional advertising becomes less and less effective.

  4. I love the example you chose, Rep. While publishers continue to tinker and try new revenue generating models, they need to keep in mind that the consumer continues to get smarter, too.

    With Mr. Forbes’ BrandVoice, the start-up fee is $100k and $50k per month thereafter, from what I can tell. Forbes goes as far to say within its sales package, “It’s best to avoid references to partner products and services within posts and instead let the accompanying ad creative serve this purpose. This distinction helps maintain brand credibility with readers and the publishing community, and it supports a greater chance of higher search engine rankings.” So, there you have it: the publisher readily admits that the brand’s cred is at stake, but “don’t worry, we’ll take care of it all!”

    For some, I suppose there is a place for this. But for those that are truly trying to engage and “tell a story” I think earned media provides the best avenue for that. I am in the “heresy camp.”

    • I agree that earned media is probably still the most effective. But for brands that can release their grip on producing self-serving copy, and create an infrastructure that empowers them to become great storytellers, there is huge potential upside.

  5. Great post, Ted. I agree with you on all fronts, but I’d like to respond from the POV of a reader. Keeping this in mind, I’m not a fan of native advertising. Sometimes it’s clearly labeled as sponsored content, sometimes it’s not. I go to a specific publication to read the reporting, opinions and views of those writers/editors, not that of a company who is paying to have their content plopped in front of me. It seems like a sneaky way to get me to read an ad and, sadly, it works, because half of the time I don’t realize it’s sponsored content until I have finished reading.

    • Thanks, Laura. Keep in mind that because you work in the marketing and communications field, you are more savvy than the average reader. Your radar for this is much better than the average reader — i.e. your ability to distinguish between paid and earned media. I am concerned with readers who don’t know any better. Brands and publishers must be diligent about adhering to transparency standards that make it clear to any reader of any background that the content is paid, not earned.

      • I completely agree. So, if it’s difficult for me to distinguish between paid/earned content, then it will be much more difficult/nearly impossible for others outside of the field. They might not even know that this is happening.