Going Native

Eliza Williams looks back at a year in which native advertising established itself as a controversial presence in our media landscape, and asks what its future might hold

In 2014 native advertising went mainstream, spawning new agencies and a sense of hope that here was a way for news media to make money in the digital age. Yet it has also caused significant consternation amongst commentators and readers.

Can you trust the media? This is a pertinent question for our times, and with the prolonged revelations of the phone-hacking trial in the UK, plus the blatantly partisan behaviour of certain news organisations, it might seem easy to answer in the negative. And yet belief in a free, honest media runs deep, which is why this year’s rapid development of ‘native advertising’ – content paid for by brands that appears in the guise of editorial in newspapers and online – has created a sense of alarm.

Native advertising has been around for a few years now, but in 2014 everyone began to take it seriously. For its champions, it is seen as a way for news media to survive in the digital age, where no-one wants to pay for content, and ad techniques such as banners are seen as ineffectual. Yet for its detractors, the rise of native is a curse: in particular its impact on the credibility of news organisations. John Oliver devoted over ten minutes to the subject in an August episode of Last Week Tonight, in which he likened native advertising to ripping the heart out of the independent press, while in May, journalist and editor Andrew Sullivan described paid content as the “surrender” of journalism in an interview with Digiday. The message from both is apocalyptic: news reporting as we know it is over. But is this a full and fair picture? Can any good in fact come from native advertising?

What is clear is how central it is becoming to the advertising strategies of many major media organisations. Early this year, both The New York Times and The Guardian announced the launch of in-house branded content teams to create native ad work for their publications, both online and in print. T Brand Studio, the NY Times’ team, now has 21 people on its staff and is growing, while Guardian Labs has 130, including creatives, strategists, and account managers.

There is a similarity of approach between the two studios: both are set up with key players from the world of journalism and aim to reflect the image of the newsroom, albeit one that is focused on commercial output. A central tenet to both studios is also that they are entirely independent from the editorial teams at their respective publications. “Our T Brand Studio team is intentionally and completely separate from our newsroom team, such that no members of our news or editorial staffs play a role in the creation of our branded content,” explains Adam Aston, editorial director at T Brand Studio. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure our content is distinguished and clearly labelled as advertising that comes from a marketer. Native advertising is not about tricking readers into thinking what they are reading is created by The New York Times newsroom; rather it is about providing readers with insightful and valuable content.”

The Guardian is also careful to protect its integrity as a trusted news source and to mitigate against any potential conflicts of interest, senior editors hold weekly meetings with the Guardian Labs team to talk through every client they are looking to partner with. “And if editorial say no, it’s an absolute no, we just won’t do it,” says Anna Watkins, managing director at Guardian Labs.

The type of content that is produced by these studios varies from client to client. At Guardian Labs there is a resistance to the phrase ‘native advertising’ – “it’s become a bit of a dirty word,” says Watkins – with the content they produce split between ‘advertisement features’, created in collaboration with a brand, and stories labelled ‘sponsored by’, which are backed by a brand but created independently. (One of Andrew Sullivan’s bugbears about this kind of content is the amount of jargon associated with it – “as soon as they start giving you gibberish, you realise they’re doing something naughty,” he commented – and it seems an area of advertising that’s yet to find a universally accepted lexicon.)

Watkins cites the GuardianWitness app (which was created before the formation of Guardian Labs) as an example of work of the calibre the company aims for: the app invites users to contribute stories, images and video and is backed by EE, specifically to promote the network’s provision of 4G. Seen as a happy marriage of editorial aims and brand messaging, the app has won marketing awards as well as picking up the Press Gazette innovation of the year award in 2013. “Where it works best is where we find there is a brand with a big ambition, or they have an ambition to bring added value to our readers, where they want to play in a space which is true to the Guardian’s brand values,” says Watkins. Other major projects at the Guardian include a deal with Unilever focused on raising awareness about sustainability issues, while smaller projects include a partnership with the British Academy to create an interactive documentary on the first world war that can be watched in multiple languages.

T Brand Studio recently gained attention for a paid article in the New York Times about women in US prisons. A serious piece of journalism, it was written by Melanie Deziel, an editor and social media strategist at T Brand Studio, and backed by Netflix, in promotion of its prison-based comedy-drama Orange is the New Black. While the logo for the show and the channel appears at the top of the piece, alongside a T Brand Studio logo, there is no explicit promotion of the show in the article. For haters of native advertising, this piece proves problematic – it is interesting and well-researched and contains no overt publicity for Netflix. It does raise the question, as all native advertising does, of whether the New York Times would write about this subject anyway (and if not, why not?), though it was compelling enough for audiences to share regardless.

At news and entertainment site Buzzfeed, sponsored content posts blend in easily with the regular editorial stories on the site, despite the clear label saying ‘promoted’ that sits alongside them. As at the Guardian and the New York Times, at Buzzfeed, the business side of the company sits separately from the editorial team, yet the commercial arm is skilled at creating stories that mimic the click-bait tone of the site’s regular articles. “We try to strike a balance between the desire of the reader to take something away and demand of a brand to sell something,” says creative director Philly Byrne. “The number one thing is to deliver value to the reader.”

The hope is that, if this value is delivered, the reader will share the story on social media or blogs, and Byrne has identified a number of qualities that are key to achieving the highly prized share. These include: nostalgia, identity, humour, inspiration and information. “It sounds almost trite, because these are things that people who write books and make films have known for hundreds of years but we’re having to remind ourselves of them in this space,” he says. “Now we’re conversing one-to-one to people, we need to think about what’s the point, what are they going to get out of it.”

Buzzfeed’s style is light and snappy, so its branded content is too – lists are popular, as well as quizzes, with recent examples being a ‘Which European City Are You?’ quiz and a story listing ’20 Things Locals Love About Barcelona’, both sponsored by British Airways. While the link between the brand and the story in these instances is fairly obvious, increasingly Buzzfeed attempts to create branded stories that are subtle and clever, drawing on a wider ad campaign for example or finding an interesting side quality to a product, rather than hammering readers over the head with a brand message. “What we try to do, which is one thing brands have to be very brave about, is to decentralise the brand or product,” says Byrne. “Unless you’ve got an incredible product, like a new X-Men movie.”

Native advertising could be said to be a natural progression of a changing media, and in some ways, as John Oliver pointed out in his tirade against it, we only have ourselves to blame for its arrival – if we want everything for free, there have to be sacrifices, and perhaps the blurring of ‘church and state’ is one of them. Yet it is nobody’s interest – media outlet or brand – to drive readers away by tricking them with fake articles that will lead to the mistrust of an entire media enterprise.

As native advertising matures, the agreed approach from the reputable media players seems to be one of transparency – clear labelling of sponsored articles – and close examination. “I think any time a new form of advertising is introduced, it should be scrutinised,” says Ben Williams, editor, digital at New York magazine. “Especially on the internet, where there’s a long tradition of new media companies being willing to blur edit/ad boundaries. That said, there are traditional analogies to native ads – like advertorial pages that also intentionally look like editorial – and some of the fear about them has been overstated.

“It all comes down to clear labelling,” Williams says, echoing the message from the other outlets. “If the story is clearly marked as an ad – which can be done via explicit statements and/or design treatments – then there should be no confusion in the reader’s mind.” Interestingly though, Williams also states that native advertising remains only a part of New York’s ad strategy, pointing out that banner ads and custom display ads including home page takeovers are still their biggest revenue driver, “despite many predictions of their demise”.

So if everything is clearly and definitively labelled, perhaps the inclusion of native advertising amongst our reading material is no bad thing. The concern is whether this is something that will be upheld by all publishers, however. As most of us can cite examples of poor native ad treatments we’ve seen this year, this is a worry that is valid. It could be said that as we become more attuned to this content, we will become better at ignoring it (will a native ad blocker eventually become available, even?), but this feels a somewhat weary task: aside from anything else, native advertising reminds us, once again, that there are increasingly few places today that are protected from ‘the sell’ and that we have to be more vigilant than ever of insidious brand messaging.

If we accept that native advertising is here to stay, maybe the answer is to fight for it to be good. To use our power on social media to call out the bad stuff and to demand that it offers readers something that ideally would otherwise be unaffordable for a publisher to produce: content that is special and appealing, and that – like other great advertising – we will want to share anyway. “It works best when a brand comes along and enables editorial to create something that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do,” says Watkins. “That’s also when there’s a really good relationship between commercial and editorial … it requires relationship building, and trust on both sides.”

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