How to make native advertising more ethical and effective

Timing is everything.

This piece began as a a conversation I had with a friend who is a former newspaper designer and later became a self-taught digital developer. He has a deep well of experience in print and the web and a love of both. So when he told me he thought native advertising tries to fool readers into believing an ad is news, it was obvious to me that even those most likely to understand the form have concerns about its function. Bob Garfield’s February Guardian article also seemed like it deserved a response. So I decided to put down some thoughts about native advertising that had been brewing in my head since the Atlantic‘s Scientology dustup.

That was two months ago.

For one reason or another, it took a while before the piece was ready to pitch around. By then, Jill Abramson had been fired from the New York Times and native advertising was cited in many of the discussions about the split. I worked with our agency PR director to rewrite it as a peg to that event and what started as something rather navel-gaze-y ended up as timely.

The piece below first ran in PR Week on May 19th, 2014 and was one of its most-shared articles that week.

Many articles about New York Times editor Jill Abramson’s firing discuss her clashes with the business side of the Times organization. One area of conflict was native advertising. According to reports, Abramson’s primary concern with native advertising was her belief that it could mislead readers into thinking the Times was the source of the work rather than an advertiser. Though many questions surround her departure, perhaps it’s worth revisiting why native advertising is often a source of controversy.

Abramson has a point about some native advertising; even marketers who embrace native ads must acknowledge standards aren’t applied across the board. Because of this, the form has an identity problem – perhaps because it too often obscures that identity. When it comes to effective, ethical native advertising, the best of it communicates its intent and meets the reader’s expectations. Here are five suggestions to ensure it does:

1. Create content for context

Few readers of the web are looking for a more disruptive banner ad experience. Yet most in-stream native ads are merely taking the flashy (or Flash-y) experience of banners and placing them in the editorial stream or blocking the editorial altogether. For native to really be effective, the content needs to match its context.

For example, Buzzfeed’s native content is nearly indistinguishable from its editorial. Moreover, the 2.2 million views on a Funny or Die video from UnderArmour starring Tom Brady suggest viewers thought it was as funny, if not moreso, than the rest of the content on the site.

Finally, Om Malik suggested in a recent article that social’s context may be native’s best hope for a happy marriage between the need for scale and an engaging user experience.

2. Establish clear content goals

Not all native advertising needs to move units. Other business goals – brand affinity, customer loyalty, newsletter subscribers – can be driven by content. It’s when we try to make native advertising do everything – drive sales, position the brand and generate leads – that we head down the road of confusing readers or tricking them into clicks.

American Express Open started with the goal of creating a community through events. By creating content to serve that goal, not the goal of signing up more customers for its credit cards, it established itself as a supporter of small businesses and became a case study in great content marketing.

 3. Improve the design of native

A recent Emarketer report (“Native advertising: Difficult To Define but Definitely Growing”) quoted Abramson’s former colleague Meredith Kopit Levien, The New York Times Company’s executive vice president of advertising, as saying its native advertising performs “substantially better than traditional display advertising.” Early forays into native by the Times, like this piece from Dell about the office habits of millennials, delivers intelligent content on news-driven topics with a design that makes its origins clear (even down to the URL). Whether because of, or in spite of, Abramson’s concerns, the  native ads at the Times have high standards for both disclosure and effectiveness.

Quartz’s native advertising program incorporates brand content into its editorial stream without compromising the integrity of the other content there. It accomplishes this with clean design and disclosure as in this sponsored content from Siemens.

4. Declare content’s source

A friend recently asked for an example of native advertising that was obvious about its origins and intent. I sent him a link to the Red Bull Stratos site. I was being cheeky, but the reasoning is sound.

There’s no benefit to a brand or publisher when content’s source is hidden. Just as a well-written lead cues a reader to an article’s content, so too should native advertising signal its intent. Without this disclosure, native’s effectiveness would be reduced. A January 2014 Forrester Research, Inc. report (“Brands Lift Engagement With Native Advertising”) suggests lack of content disclosure erodes reader trust. Once you lose a reader, it’s difficult to get them back.

5. Stop pretending standards don’t exist

Resources for the ethical creation of native advertising are out there. Here are two:

  • Frank Sennett, currently Crain’s Chicago Business’s director of digital strategy, published a list of ethical guidelines for native in the wake of controversies at Buzzfeed and The Atlantic.
  • The Word of Mouth Marketing Association says its standards for disclosure  “apply to sponsored or integrated marketing activities including so-called ‘native advertising’ when disclosure would be appropriate to distinguish between editorial and advertising content.”

As the dust settles around Abramson’s firing, questions about native advertising will be debated anew. Whatever changes are made at The New York Times, native advertising seems likely to remain a part of its offerings. So long as the form preserves the user’s experience and works in context, the better it will be for brands and publishers.

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