Going native: How advertisers try to click with users

Native advertising offers hope for publishers, but they need to keep readers’ trust

This column has not been brought to you by anybody except the Business Editor, who was looking for someone media savvy to fill in for the week. But who’s to say that, in the not-too-distant future, a column of this sort won’t be required to slip in a word of thanks to the sponsor who made it all possible?

Such things are already common in the digital worlds of listicles, podcasts and promoted content. “Native advertising”, “content marketing” and “inbound marketing” are all phrases bandied around what journalists in ye olden days of print used to call advertorial, when arcane style guides relating to typography, layout and page headers supposedly served to alert the reader to the fact that, well, this wasn’t quite the same sort of article as they might find in the rest of the paper.

An opaque system of classification covered everything from getting a company to provide financial support for a one-off supplement to an out-and-out ad masquerading as an article.

As it has developed and become more sophisticated in recent years, this sort of material often seeks to improve a brand's image by associating it with a worthwhile or entertaining project of its own devising. Examples include Kenco's current Coffee vs Gangs campaign (running on The Irish Times in Ireland and the Telegraph in the UK) or the Guardian's Brand USA tourism project.


Subtle disclaimers

But when the article you publish appears first as a clickable one-liner in a Twitter timeline or a mobile feed, what responsibility do you as a publisher have to your public to signal that a commercial relationship of some sort is involved? And, with the best will in the world, how do you do it? Typography isn’t enough, obviously, and nor are subtle disclaimers at the bottom of the page you’ve just read.

In the US, the Federal Trade Commission, which has regulatory responsibility for advertising, has warned that simply attaching a "sponsored" label to content will not be sufficient. The sponsored label must be immediately visible, even to users who only look at the headline.

The FTC has indicated it will be issuing further guidelines for native advertising later this year, but such broad regulations will never fully capture the various different types of sponsored content which are proliferating across the internet. Ultimately, every self-respecting publisher that values its relationship with its audience will need to have clear guidelines and make those guidelines transparent and public.

And they'll have to do it fast. Unlike the old print-based advertorials, which were a profitable sideline for most publishers, native content in all its various forms is increasingly seen as the best hope for publishers seeking to grow online ad revenues. Display advertising – the banner ads which users despise or ignore – has been a bitter disappointment. Newspapers and other media have watched in dismay as their lunch was gobbled up, first by Google and then by Facebook, both of which offered a more attractive value exchange – they gave you free services and in return you gave them personal data which allows them to serve effective, targeted advertising.

Mobile has made matters worse, as advertisers figure out how to deliver ads to smaller touchscreens without further alienating users. And, in a not-unrelated development, those users are increasingly using adblocking tools, a trend likely to be exacerbated by Apple’s announcement that adblocking will be a feature of its next mobile operating system update.

So, what to do?

The best hope for the future, many publishers believe, lies in native content and sponsorship of one form or another. New media companies have enthusiastically embraced native advertising: Buzzfeed's CEO Jonah Peretti says 100 per cent of the company's revenue comes from branded content and partnerships. More media companies are following suit.

Renewed pressure

The challenges for journalism are pretty obvious. The “church-state” divide between the editorial and business sides of media companies was never as clean or clear-cut as has been claimed. But the decline in traditional revenues and the search for new business models means that established principles are likely to come under renewed pressure. All the more reason for media companies to have rules in place that make it absolutely clear whenever any article, video, podcast or slideshow is produced as part of a commercial arrangement. Anything less risks depleting the most important asset they have – the trust of their readers and users.