Native Advertising: Soap Operas for the Digital Age
Native advertising is a lot of things, but one thing it's not is new. As early as the 1930s, Procter & Gamble began producing and sponsoring radio soaps, and then television. In fact, the company created a special division called Procter & Gamble Entertainment in 1946 for the purpose of "creating original content that enables the company to connect with consumers and advertise its brands." Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The concept of an advertiser providing branded content tailored to the context of a publication is really no different than soap operas, or than advertorial pages in a print magazine. As Robert Rose, chief strategist for the Content Marketing Institute succinctly put it: "It is simply one aspect of the larger discipline we know of as branded content marketing."
If that's the case, what's the hubbub about? Why the new name?
For one, the affordances of technology have expanded the palette from which native advertising can be drawn. Proponents of native advertising hope it will be more interactive and seamless, and hence, more engaging and productive. Amanda Turnbull, group publishing director of Harper's Bazaar and Esquire UK, has high hopes for this model. "If you define native advertising as sponsored content that's relevant to the consumer experience, not interruptive and looks and feels similar to its editorial environment, then we've been doing this for some time already in print, and our digital platforms just give us more scope, scale and frequency to continue. What's highlighting the trend now is that a younger, tech-savvy group of consumers actively want to engage with brands and to learn more about them, and digital platforms certainly facilitate this."
Rose also suspects the recasting may be part of a push to make sure content marketing falls under the purview of media agency advertising budgets. "From the marketer's point of view I don't care what it's called. At the end of the day, the people that really care about the term, I think, are mostly the media agencies who are scared to death that this is not going to be called native advertising and therefore lose the budget for this."
Whatever you call it, the trend appears to be pointing to a world where native advertising is more prevalent, if not the norm, and publishers are eager to understand it and implement it so it is a source of steady revenue and without doing damage to their own brands. However, along with these new avenues also come concerns about whether editorial standards will be maintained, especially online, where folks tend to play fast and loose.
Protect the Brand
Above all, publishers are determined to maintain the credibility of their editorial brands or else jeopardize the trust of their readers. "The most crucial thing for the Foreign Affairs brand is to maintain seriousness, authority and quality," says Lynda Hammes, publisher of Foreign Affairs. "The trust of our readers is priority number one, so we have been loathe to move quickly into the area of sponsored content, since industry-wide standards are still developing. That said, we know that custom content holds the promise of higher quality advertising that is more relevant and engaging to readers."
Turnbull says there will always be some form of demarcation between native ads and Hearst's editorial content. "Our readers crave information that is timely, actionable and curated for them by us and we are very clear in making sure they know the difference between pure editorial and advertorial or 'co-presented' content."
Turnbull says Esquire has already worked with Belvedere vodka and Stella Artois in this regard on the recently launched tablet-only Esquire Weekly. "It's a delicate balancing act, but it works best when we find partners whose brands we value and know will resonate with our readers. Similarly, on the client side it works best when our partners understand that we are best placed to know what our readers want and how to deliver it in the most engaging way. The bravest clients get the best out of it."
Even if prudence is the operative word in native advertising, publishers do run the risk of reader backlash, says Lindsay Nelson, VP of integrated programs at Slate Magazine. "Readers tend to be sensitive and opinionated when it comes to sponsored content. Any content that is produced and promoted runs the risk of some kind of reader backlash, negative commentary, negative social reaction, etc. Advertisers need to be willing to accept the space that they are playing in and realize that this hybrid advertising/editorial medium comes with this risk."
"Publishers also risk trust and content integrity if they provide their readers with branded content that heavily pushes a brand agenda and/or isn't relevant in any way to their audience," says Nelson. "Publishing a few pieces like this could easily turn off an audience who was once open to viewing the native advertising content you previously published. It could also create a perception that a publisher is selling out to the brand just to get the dollars. Native advertising is most successful when publishers and advertisers work together to create relevant, interesting and authentic content that appeals to the reader base and provides a positive association with the brand. If publishers don't stand firm on this, they put their credibility-and ultimately native performance-at risk."
However, not everyone is onboard the native advertising train. The breadth of media choices available today means publishers should ask themselves if they can afford to gamble with their brand, says Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Ogden Publications, publisher of Mother Earth News. "All our marbles are presently bet on our editorial brand. The brand's value is the core of our business. Its preservation is our first priority."
According to Welch, Mother Earth News has grown quickly over the past 10 years because it has focused on growing its audience and improving engagement by creating media tailored to readers' preferences. "If any criterion other than the audience's preference is employed to build a media product, I believe we're risking the value of the product. I'm not saying that native advertising, per se, will destroy a media brand. But to the extent that the native advertising might diverge from the audience's preferences, the brand's value will be diminished."
Hammes says Foreign Affairs has observed how other magazines and digital media have handled native advertising and thought critically about what lines should be drawn for native advertising. "When we re-launch ForeignAffairs.com, we will offer advertisers digital modules for custom branded content. But we maintain extremely strict standards for the presentation and quality of that content." Here are some examples of how Hammes will approach native advertising.
Process: "All sponsored content is created by the client, agency or the business team of the magazine with zero involvement from our editorial staff," says Hammes. "Foreign Affairs evaluates all sponsored content RFPs relative to the editorial plan to avoid content adjacencies that could confuse the reader. We will evaluate the custom content to make sure it in no way could undermine the distinctiveness and credibility of the editorial content and context.
Presentation: "All features with content created by or for advertisers is clearly labeled and immediately distinguishable from editorial through incorporation of design elements such as color and styling or the brand's logo. Any marketing or distribution of custom content is clearly distinguished from editorial content marketing through labeling as well."
Quality: "In addition to differentiation in format, design and labeling, the advertising content must be of high quality. We do not run tacky commodity ads from a high-volume ad network, even if we have available inventory. We also reject print advertising that is offensive or aesthetically unsuitable in order to maintain the premium feel of the magazine. Branded content is held to these same standards."
Reaping the Benefits: Actionable & Trackable
If done well, advocates of native advertising say the rewards are significant. "Publishers benefit by having an additional revenue stream and a way to compete in the fading days of buttons and banners," says Nelson. "Rather than fill a site with ads, publishers are able to make money on an advertising medium that aligns directly with their editorial product.
Turnbull says Hearst products like Esquire Weekly are geared toward the new generation of media consumers, which she describes as "tech-savvy, time poor but essentially curious and open-minded audience." Turnbull says digital content will be more actionable, which jibes with the goals of high-quality native advertising. "You can do more than just sit back and enjoy the editorial-now you can take action on what you've read, immediately. Everything we write about is actionable-a process facilitated by being on a digital platform. Buy the DVD, music or books we're recommending, book the restaurant or the movie we've reviewed, click through and buy the fashion we've styled."
Nelson of Slate thinks publishers should be very aware of the importance of analytics and its role in justifying native advertising as a viable revenue driver. "Metrics are not simply about clicks, page views or engagement. They need to be compared against site averages, industry averages, media, advertising and any corresponding brand lift studies in order to tell a complete campaign story. As the numbers justify the investment, native advertising will become more and more credible as an effective advertising medium. Ultimately, these analytics will also change the pricing model.
The strong relationship that publishers have established with an audience is the value marketers see in native advertising. "The advantage from a marketer's perspective is that native content is actively sought out by consumers where they already have developed a sense of trust," says Tom Coburn, CEO of Jebbit, an online advertising service. "Trust serves as an unofficial 'endorsement' from the publisher, which not only adds to the brand's overall credibility, but also helps build out an ongoing conversation with the consumer."
Coburn thinks that both publishers and marketers need to work together to ensure both the marketer's brand and the publisher's brand are properly served by native advertising. "Marketers must be keenly aware of which venues are appropriate for their brand, and which audiences will respond positively to this type of content. Editors need to have a sense of which brands are appropriate for their own channels and ensure they are maintaining the publication's voice and perspective uniformly." PE
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Denis Wilson is the content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.