But I can't ignore "native advertising" anymore. What I initially hoped would be a passing phrase in the marketing world has sparked such intense discussion, debate, and confusion that it must be addressed, and it must be addressed by all parties in our industry -- brands, agencies, publishers, vendors, and PR professionals alike. Because, while some argue that the fundamental premise of native advertising is not new, the spotlight that is now being shown on the matter -- sparked, so far as I can tell, by the mere fact that someone drummed up such a lovely little phrase to describe the concept -- has fueled the evolution of "native advertising" to the point that it could become a whole new beast. And that beast could threaten the very foundation of publishing, if not managed with a firm hand (and a reliable choke collar).
And sorry, brands and agencies -- you're at risk too. You know all that money you're spending (or getting paid) to create "valuable" content (whether it's an article, tweet, image, or video) for the purposes of native advertising? That's all going to go down the tubes if our industry doesn't draw some very clear lines on what is and isn't acceptable in this realm.
Not just semantics
Here's the thing: We as an industry don't need the term "native advertising." And I'm not just nitpicking semantics here. The sheer existence of the term could lead us down a dangerous path. As such, some of the companies that are aligning themselves with the term right now -- reputable companies with great offerings -- might want to reconsider.
"But Lori," you say. "'Native advertising' is just another way of describing something that marketers have done for ages." Fine. If that's the case, the term is redundant. Stop using it. You're confusing people.
"But Lori," you say. "'Native advertising' truly is a new opportunity for marketers that needs its own distinction." Well, if that's the case, then this "new opportunity" you're describing is actually a horrible blurring of the distinction between pure editorial and advertising that's going to ultimately backfire on publishers and marketers alike. So not only do we need to squash the term "native advertising," but we must also put an end to the bastardized practices that it has spawned.
The obligatory debate over definitions
OK, let's get the terminology out of the way. After all, this is where a lot of people are getting hung up, and rightfully so.
A lot of marketers have been using "content marketing" and "native advertising" interchangeably in recent months, and that's a problem. Even if you accept the legitimacy of the term "native advertising" (which I obviously don't), this basic distinction still needs to be made: Content marketing and native advertising are not the same thing. Native advertising is a subset of content marketing, just as advertising is a subset of marketing in general. Content marketing refers incredibly broadly to the idea of brands creating content as means of boosting their brands. Native advertising, so far as our industry has determined, is when brands pay to inject that content into the information streams of consumers, be it via an article, tweet, video, or image. This can be done in a number of ways, and some practices are more concerning than others.
When it comes to the manifestations of what we're currently calling native advertising, the distinctions made by Ben Kunz are a useful starting point for discussion. He breaks down native advertising into three types:
- "The Frame," which is a relatively innocent execution in which a piece of content has an introduction or conclusion that notes the piece is sponsored by a given entity.
- "The Insertion," in which the content is produced by a marketer and disclosed as such, yet looks like real stories or videos on the site.
- "The Misdirection," which goes even further than "The Insertion" and is specifically designed to misdirect the source.
Here's my point: Those first two manifestations? We have names for those. They're called "sponsored content" and "advertorials." It's that simple. Those are perfectly good terms that advertisers and publishers understand and have put a good deal of thought into executing in a reputable way. (To see just how much thought, check out The Guardian's guidelines for sponsored content. The publication leaves little room for confusion.)
It's fine if publishers want to put a renewed emphasis on these types of sponsored products -- and many of them are (including iMedia Connection). Many publications are opening new divisions staffed with writers and editors whose sole purpose is to craft quality sponsored content that aligns with each publication's own tone. That's fine. Good for them. Fight the good fight against declining subscriptions and ad revenues, my brethren. But label that content as sponsored, and label it clearly.
But that third manifestation of native advertising? The Misdirection? If marketers and publishers have coined the phrase "native advertising" with the hope of legitimizing practices like that, then we're all in deep shit. That's a battle that reputable publications have been fighting since the dawn of journalism, and for good reason. If you blur the line -- especially intentionally -- between editorial and advertising, you will lose reader trust. And then you'll lose readers. And then it's pretty much over.
Oh, and marketers? That loss of trust applies to you too. If you think consumers won't use their spending power to demonstrate how little they like being fooled by your veiled sales pitches, then think again. It's 2013. People go remarkably out of their way to avoid ads. If you try to slip one in the back door, that door will be slammed and locked forever.
Beyond the above-mentioned tactics, other companies positioning themselves in the native space are focusing on inserting activity-driven display ads into the natural ecosystem of the content that people are consuming. Some of these ads are quite brilliant, and I generally like what these companies are doing. But again, why we need to apply a muddy term like "native advertising" to these practices is beyond me. I realize "activity-based in-content display ads" is hardly a sexy moniker. But at least everyone knows what we're talking about and can immediately discern the value.
The blurriest line
OK, to recap: Let's stop dressing up our old advertorials and sponsored content with the unnecessary bow of "native advertising." And, more importantly, let's not intentionally blur the lines between editorial and advertising. It's fine for brands to support or put out valuable content to bolster their images. But don't hide the source.
There is one final blurred line that needs to be addressed, and it's one that publications and marketers (particularly PR professionals) have been intentionally ignoring for far too long. I'd say that it falls into the realm of so-called native advertising, except that in this case, the publishers aren't even getting paid to soil their good names.
I'm talking about articles touting certain practices, solutions, sectors, trends, types of products, etc., that are authored by representatives of companies with a vested interest in the success of those very things. Those articles, the creation of which is essentially the very foundation of many public relations firms, are essentially sponsored content -- that no one is paying for. And increasingly, in a world where page views and volume of content are valued over quality, they are tarnishing otherwise reputable publications.
This topic arose recently in our office when this Mashable article, "Can Content Marketing Save Journalism?" was circulated among our editorial team. It's an interesting read -- the writer makes some good points and throws out a few interesting examples. Ultimately, the article painted a relatively hopeful picture for publishers that embrace the trend toward native advertising.
And then one of our editors -- only one, out of the half dozen who read the piece -- noticed this at the end of the article:
*Editor's Note: The author's company, Contently, helps brands find journalists for the purpose of creating content for native advertising.
In a flash, the article's credibility crumbled into an ironic little pile. A representative of a company built on native advertising suggesting that native advertising is of great value? Not a surprising conclusion. But what was surprising was how buried this important disclosure was within the article.
It's not my intent to pick on Mashable here. To do so would be for me to fling rocks while living in the most fragile of glass houses. iMedia Connection has been guilty of this offense on many occasions. The ad network writing about how to choose an ad network. The social media listening platform writing about the value of listening in social media. It's a line we've crossed many times in the need to feed the daily publishing beast. But it's a line that we're becoming ever more vigilant about maintaining, not only out of respect for our readers, but also out of respect for our sponsors.
It's not fair for companies to sneak (and in the case of particularly crafty PR folks, I do mean sneak) self-serving promotions into publication under the guise of articles while other companies support those publications via traditional advertising and sponsorships. It blurs the line just as badly as the worst manifestations of native advertising, and there will be long-term repercussions.
In the marketing world, there is no black and white anymore. We're all navigating a landscape in which the shades of gray multiply weekly. But that doesn't give us an excuse to flagrantly ignore editorial vs. advertising distinctions that have time and time again been proven valuable and, in fact, essential to maintaining consumer trust in both publications and brands.
Lori Luechtefeld is senior editor of iMedia Connection.
"Ink splash background" image via Shutterstock.