Native advertising (branded content, sponsored posts, call it what you will) is certainly starting to make its presence felt in South Africa, as it is abroad. But is it being done ethically? Are readers aware that some stories are in fact paid-for? Or is there an element of being ‘conned’ by content that looks and feels like a story, but is in fact paid for by an advertiser?
At the recent World Publishing Expo in Hamburg, WAN-Ifra’s Ben Shaw presented a talk on what constitutes good practice in the sector, titled ‘Publish Awesome’. In it he advised newspapers – print and digital – to not only make sponsored content as good as the rest of the stories in a publication, but also to ensure the lines weren’t blurred, saying editorial and native content, and editorial and native content teams, should be separated. He also advised being transparent on what was paid-for material, and said bad native ads would “erode” the trust of audiences.
Trevor Ormerod, general manager of sales and marketing at Times Media Group, says while the native advertising trend started in digital media, “international trends are showing that it’s taking off in traditional print media now as well”.
Ormerod was responding to a complaint from a The Media Online reader who pointed out two recent examples of native advertising in the Sunday Times, which they said wasn’t clearly marked, and that they felt aggrieved that halfway through reading the story, they realised it was a “puff piece”.
But Ormerod says TMG has clear guidelines. “The trick, as you have stated above, is how to identify it as it is generally advertorial without the advertorial heading. We have taken the stance to try and differentiate through two mechanisms, the one being a ‘brandvoice’ logo at the end of the article and alternatively through a bright colour border,” he explained.
“Native advertising really works best when it’s written by a thought leader on a specific subject without overtly marketing a brand. Adrian Gore would write about healthcare in Southern Africa; he is probably best positioned to write about this subject, by default and without mentioning the brand. Discovery Health is positioned as the pre-emptive health company in South Africa as it’s led by the guru of healthcare,” he says.
Independent Media’s Sandy Naude says the group’s offer to clients requesting native advertising in print and digital titles “ensures that clients’ requirements are top of mind and that communication on any platform results in well written, researched content with design and graphics to match their message”.
Naude stresses that this type of advertising is “not a re-engineered press release with a logo attached. Rather, it is a collaboration with our clients on an outcome to match their brand objectives and of course, to inform our readers in a creative and compelling way”.
“We have contracted a team of specialists to engage with our clients regarding their specific needs and to deliver to the brief’s requirements. All native advertising will carry a strap identifying this ad type; the writers are not newsroom journos. In our view, native advertising will grow if the concept and delivery work for the client,” she said.
CEO of Wag the Dog Publishers Sandra Gordon, who publishes The Media Online and The Media magazine, asks what has happened to an ‘advertorial’ or ‘sponsored content’ strapline.
“I admire the manner in which both magazines and newspapers have been tackling declining print advertising revenues. Noteworthy examples are bundling print and digital packages for advertisers, in-house creative concept development, better research and generally working more closely with media agencies and direct clients to add value without harming margins,” she says.
But, she adds, when it comes to paid-for content, commonly known as advertorial, “the Sunday Times and perhaps other titles are pushing the envelope too far at the risk of losing credibility and ultimately readers and advertisers”, she says.
Too subtle for readers?
She used a recent edition of Business Times as an example. “They ran two advertisements surrounded by lengthy editorial clearly paid for by the advertiser. The coloured rules around the content matched those of the advertisers’ logos.”
Gordon said it was “far too subtle to alert readers to the puffed up content being paid for”.
But Ormerod says sponsored content is defined by a ‘Brandvoice’ tag and the coloured border around the stories. He says native advertising was at first slow to take off. “But then we actively took ‘Brandvoice’ native advertising to market and pitched it predominantly at PR companies where we could get senior management (as described above) to give educated insights and thought leadership into various topics.
“The content is still edited by our sub-editors to ensure that it meets the required editorial standards of the newspaper and also that the content would be of value to our readers. We are definitely starting to get more requests for it, but will continue to brand it ‘Brandvoice’ at the end as the differentiator and also we will not carry the company’s logo as we believe this defeats the object of the ‘thought leadership’ positioning,” he says.
Shaw, in his Publish Awesome presentation, says great native advertising production comes when publishers “Find your strength; capitalise on video and social; create smart offering packages; execute well, and are prepared to push boundaries”.
Clutching at straws
But not everyone is buying into native advertising as a revenue-generating concept. Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO of Story Worldwide, said in a piece written for The Media Online – ‘Clutching at native advertising is like clutching at straws’ – that South African publishers should carefully watch what was going on abroad. He calls native advertising “a dead end – a passing fad in the slow demise of traditional advertising and a deceptive view of what’s really happening in digital media”.
“The press of Africa, especially South Africa, is fortunate to be able to see its future by watching the destructive contraction of ad dollars in the West. I urge you to watch closely and learn from America’s mistakes,” Cheyfitz says.
“I’ve been arguing for several years (in conversations, speeches and pieces like this old thing on Huffington Post) that publishers, especially newspapers, need to wake up and realize their future value to advertisers lies in selling more services and less space. The services to be sold are the skills and knowledge at the heart of publishing—the ability to know a good story when you see one and to tell that story accurately, authentically and engagingly to a particular audience,” he says.
But The SpaceStation’s Andrea van den Bergh, in a piece for The Media Online headlined ‘Why rich content and native advertising are such an important partnership, argues, “Native is providing brands with a powerful distribution vehicle for brand content, and the success its credibility and increased consumer and brand engagement achieves, is immense. More and more clients are realising this and are making native part of their marketing strategies as a result”.
Ormerod, who says Times Media Group adds a 20% loading to native ads, says the genre is “garnering large chunk of revenue”.
“… we still look for international best practice, but it’s a trend that we need to embrace; as with everything advertising-orientated, we have to keep a very careful track on this ‘new’ trend to ensure that it never compromises the editorial excellence of the paper,” he says.
Ormerod says readers are “are astute enough (as long as we try and differentiate the article through the colour border or the branding) to understand that its really passive advertising through a senior person giving thought leadership insights into specific industries and see it for what it is”.
WATCH: Last week tonight with John Oliver on native advertising
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