Savvy consumers are increasingly reluctant to click on annoying digital ads. And so, the content world has developed a new model of making money called native advertising, and while it shows promise for publishers and advertisers alike, it comes with some hairy ethical issues. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging type of content marketing and how to navigate the gray area around it.
What is native advertising?
Native advertising is when content is paid for—and typically disclosed as sponsored or branded—but lives in the same format as non-paid content. Sponsored tweets on Twitter or sponsored posts on Instagram are native advertising; they look like regular posts, but are subtly disclosed as sponsored content. Often similar in tone and look to the original content, sometimes native ads blend in (a little too much, says Noam Chomsky, author and consumer advocate).
This practice has now bled into editorial content. Native ads in the form of journalism-style content live on the publication’s website and appear like a regular article, but are paid for by a sponsor and disclosed (somewhat discreetly) as a form of advertisement. The goal of the content is usually to keep it as editorial as possible, so some sponsored content is just like any other article with a disclaimer at the end. However, some sponsored content is more promotional.
BuzzFeed.com is one of the pioneers of native advertising with content. On its native ad articles, the sponsoring company is indicated as the “brand publisher.” The sponsored content typically relates to the company’s products or mission, though it isn’t outright promotional until a line at the end plugging the sponsoring company.
One company that often does native advertising on the site is Charmin toilet paper. The articles are in typical BuzzFeed style, in a listicle format with many images, GIFs and potty humor. For example, “14 Thoughts Everyone Has While Restroom Snooping” and “14 Exotic Places You Need ‘to Go’ Before You Die.”
They’ve also done native content with Sling TV, like this post on “The 17 Stages of Your Favorite Show Ending.” It’s also in the typical BuzzFeed style, but on a topic related to the advertiser.
Traditional news outlets are on board with this revenue stream, too. The New York Times ran a piece about incarcerated woman that was sponsored by Netflix and its show “Orange is the New Black” (for the uninitiated, it’s about women in prison).
Is native advertising for you?
If your business isn’t getting any traction with traditional advertisements, you may want to consider sponsoring native content on a website or blog with an audience likely to overlap with yours. While the examples we’ve shown are for large news sites, many smaller bloggers are willing to accept sponsored content for a reasonable price (this has been going on long before the term “native advertising” was coined). This also allows you to reach a niche audience. For example, if you sell party supplies, you could see if there are opportunities to sponsor a post on a small but popular event-planning blog.
If you do decide to go down this route, it’s important to find out how much editorial control you have, if any. Will the publication write the content without any input from you? Or do you get to help decide on the topic or content to help ensure it aligns with your brand values or products? Know that legitimate consumer publications are likely to want most, if not all, of the editorial control. However, some bloggers or B2B publications let the advertisers dictate the content or even submit their own articles.
Also, how will your business be promoted? Will you get your name and logo at the top of the piece? Will you be mentioned in the content itself, or simply in a promotional line at the end? Keep in mind that native advertising is meant to be somewhat subtle, though do make sure your name will be mentioned somewhere on the page.
Do keep in mind that while some believe native advertising is very effective, it’s still very controversial. Forbes ran a native ad on its March 2015 magazine cover, and the media world reacted angrily. Be cautious about trying new tactics that may be met with controversy.
How to keep it kosher
In 2013, The Atlantic got into hot water when it ran an article sponsored by The Church of Scientology. While it was disclosed as an ad, many claimed it wasn’t visible enough. The content was also more advertorial than editorial, and it later came out that some negative comments toward Scientology were censored by the publication. Surprise, surprise: it was an epic failure, and The Atlantic had to take it down and issue an apology.
Moral of the story: If you plan to sponsor content on a blog or publication, ensure it is clearly disclosed as branded or sponsored content (it’s the law). And while you may be tempted to have the article be about your brand or mention you in a favorable light, remember that readers are smart and will think it’s fishy. Better to maintain editorial integrity so readers are more likely to trust the publication—and your business.
Have you tried native advertising and have a story to share about its success or its failure? We’d love to hear about it!