Going native: why we should be grateful for advertiser-created content

Future Predictions for 2016 | Brodeur Partners
Mike McGrail, January 2016

Questions flutter around native advertising like seagulls around a bag of Doritos. Is it ethical? Is it deceiving? Is it effective? Is it journalism or advertising? Does it deliver for advertisers?

Fair questions, but there is only one that really matters: does anyone believe native advertising? Because everything is going to flow from the answer.

The answer so far is “yes, no, sometimes, maybe.” If history and human nature are any indicator, however, the long-term answer will be “yes.” A qualified yes, but more on that in just a bit.

Native advertising is sometimes known as sponsored content or native content. It consists mainly of articles and graphics like these that look like a publication’s editorial content, but are produced by a sponsor instead of the publication’s editorial staff. Unlike “advertorials,” native content appears in the news hole and not in the ad stack.

Native advertising is identified, in varying degrees of prominence depending on the publication, as created by an advertiser and not the publication’s editorial staff. Said advertiser has paid handsomely for the privilege of occupying the journalist’s role — $200,000 for Time magazine and $150,000 for National Geographic, according to blogger Kelsey Libert.

The yellow tag above the headline identifies this content as native advertising.
The yellow tag above the headline identifies this content as native advertising.

To publications that haven’t found their groove in the digital world, especially now that bloodthirsty ad blockers strangle their display advertising revenues, native advertising is a lifeline of new money. Native advertising revenue is expected to grow to $21 billion by 2018, according to research from BI Intelligence.

But with the riches lay dragons. “Two-thirds of respondents in a 2014 Contently survey said they felt deceived when they realized an article or video was sponsored by a brand. Just over half said they didn’t trust branded content, regardless of what it was about,” Erin Griffith wrote in Forbes.

Which brings us back to the original question: Will people trust native advertising enough in the future to make it viable?

I’m saying yes. Over the history of the American mass media, the public has shown a remarkable tolerance for what it perceives as biased content as long as – and this is the crux of the issue – they know the bias right out front.

Newspapers, the backbone of the mass media until the late 20th century, were blatantly, magnificently and unapologetically biased for most of their history. That very boldness was their saving grace. Readers knew where the papers were coming from and weighed articles against what they knew and believed themselves. Many people read more than one newspaper to get one balanced perspective. As one historian observed, “The truth was not suppressed. It was simply hard to get in any one place.”

And previous generations didn’t even have the Internet on their side. Today, we can challenge and fact check as we read. That puts publications on notice that if they let advertisers play fast and loose with the truth through native advertising, they’re going to get caught and exposed publicly.

Most of the problems that some publications – most famously The Atlantic – have had with native advertising is that it’s new and unfamiliar and they’re still figuring out how to manage it. After it was publicly flayed for a native advertising piece from the Church of Scientology, The Atlantic published new guidelines that include more prominent labeling and editorial review of native content.

The latter is essential. Treating native advertising as its own animal, subject to editing and fact checking, rather than just a variant of display advertising, will help it build credibility. And that’s good, because we need native advertising. We need native advertising because we need what used to be called “the print media” but is probably more accurately described as “the word media.”

Digital-age economics have been harsh on the word media. With so much free content available, fewer people want to pay for The Atlantic or The New York Times or Rolling Stone. Without them, the font of original and investigative reporting gets dangerously shallow. Heck, ALL content gets shallower. The word media is like coral reef of the content ecosystem. Without it, none of the flashy, rainbow-colored species – bloggers, social media – can survive.

As media consumers, we can handle bias – or to use a kinder term, point of view – as the price for a healthy word media. We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, we’ve done it for a hundred years.