Native advertising is currently in the global media spotlight. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen triggered a fierce debate about native advertising when he tweeted,“Proper definition of ‘native’: advertising that is worth reading just as much as the editorial into which it is mixed, from which it is distinguished.”
In his response, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis said native advertising – or a sponsored story that appears alongside editorial content – does nothing more than “fool readers into believing it’s not advertising, leaching on the authority of the brand nearby”.
Jarvis, and critics like him, are concerned that the practice blurs the lines between what is news and what is advertising. They say this can have a massive impact on a media organisation’s credibility.
In his Business Day column, Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the public relations value of native advertising is deeply embedded in what is made to look like an ordinary news story.
“Let’s make no bones about it: The purpose is deception, in the hope that the reader will invest the content with the same credibility and authority of a news report,” wrote Harber.
He also raised concerns about the implications for the quality of journalism, questioning what would happen if a media organisation published a paid-for report that contradicts editorial copy.
In the long run, said Harber, this will confuse the audience and will lead to a loss of credibility and authenticity.
The debate about native advertising comes as media organisations are under pressure to close the gap created by plummeting print revenues and lacklustre online advertising income.
Mail & Guardian editor in chief Chris Roper says native advertising can help solve the media’s economic conundrum as it gives news organisations the chance to take back control of their advertising revenue, which is being undermined by advertising aggregators.
“Big advertising aggregators like Google AdSense are eating us alive. They aggregate advertising and sell it at a pittance. We create this massively expensive content and then ad aggregators like Google sell advertising on our content for nothing,” says Roper.
While Harber raises concerns about the implications of native advertising, he also says that there is no point in condemning it when media organisations are battling to develop alternatives to the old advertising-driven model.
“In a sense, what I wrote and what I’m trying to say is a warning. Unless we establish rules, particularly around transparency, then it will do us long-term harm for short-term benefit,” says Harber in a later interview with The Media.
The Mail & Guardian is developing guidelines on how it will implement native advertising. These policies have been discussed and debated with the editorial staff and will also be stress-tested by the media organisation’s ombud, Franz Krüger.
According to Roper, native advertising is not about deliberate deception, but about offering brands a platform for engaging with and understanding their audience.
“The real difference between advertising online and advertising in legacy media like print is that you can measure it,” says Roper.
The Mail & Guardian’s sponsored content will be written by a specialist team that is not part of the editorial staff. Brands can then choose to be associated with the content by sponsoring it. Advertisers will have no control over the content and will not be mentioned in the story.
What they are buying is valuable metrics that will allow them to engage with their audience. This, for example, includes how many people retweeted the story, how many followers those people had and for how long people read the story.
It will also include user comments below the story, which will not be moderated if they reflect something unfavourable about the brand.
“We’re not promising you positive or negative engagement,” says Roper. “We’re promising you an audience you can speak to.”
These measurements of engagement, says Roper, are what makes native advertising different to the sponsored content model for print and why, in the Mail & Guardian’s instance, native advertising can only appear online.
Internationally, sponsored content is being used by media organisations like Forbes, the New York Times, and BuzzFeed.
The Guardian recently launched Guardian Labs, a 133-person in-house branded content unit that will develop content and products on behalf of brands. Its first client is consumer goods company Unilever and it will include content that focuses on sustainable living.
A key point about The Guardian’s native advertising model is that it wants to create engagement with readers by encouraging them to contribute videos and comments.
David Pemsel, deputy CEO of Guardian News & Media, says this is because native advertising is about creating dialogue.
“Those metrics are more authentic other than the fact you looked at an ad,” Pemsel told Adweek.
The Guardian and the Mail & Guardian are pursuing what the American Press Institute has termed the ‘underwriting model’ of native advertising, where brands can attach themselves to normal content with no interference from the brand itself.
The institute has identified three other models. With the ‘agency model’, a publisher like BuzzFeed employs specialist staff to collaborate with brands and create custom content.
There is also the case of a media organisation like Forbes’ BrandVoice, which gives brands a space to create their own content in their own name. This is the ‘platform model’, and results in the publisher having no involvement in the content.
The ‘aggregated/repurposed’ model sees publishers offering brands the right to use archived content in a new package. The Dallas Morning News, for example, offers the paper’s archives for reuse by brands that want to tell their customers stories.
But the use of native advertising is not confined to media organisations with a print-online model, as radio stations move towards including sponsored content on their digital platforms.
In a radio context, native adverts are different to traditional live reads, where adverts are delivered by on-air personalities.
Companies such as Primedia, which includes radio stations Talk Radio 702 and 94.7 Highveld Stereo, use the online identity of the stations to create custom content to which brands can then attach themselves by sponsoring it.
Primedia digital content strategist Khwezi Magwaza says this allows the company to offer advertisers an integrated media space, which provides 360-degree media campaigns.
“Clients want to engage with consumers, and consumers, in turn, want a more real experience with the brand,” says Magwaza.
We live in a world where you do not have to open a magazine or a newspaper for brands to speak to you, adds Magwaza. This means that it is no longer important where your information comes from, but rather whether the source is reliable or not.
Whether on a radio or a print-related platform, sponsored content represents journalism’s search for a balance between being economically sustainable and credible.
“Native advertising is not the silver bullet that’s going to solve the massive woes of the news media,” says Roper. “But at the same time, it’s not this dragon that has to be slayed.”
This story was first published in the April 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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