What the hell is native advertising?Native advertising is a way of getting around people’s natural aversion to advertising by disguising it as editorial or social content. There are many other definitions but that’s the bottom line. Online banner ads no longer work. This has sent publishers into a blind panic. At the same time, social media channels, in an effort to justify their mesospheric valuations, are turning to native advertising to ‘monetise’ their audiences (you and me). The result? It starts with sponsored tweets and posts but soon extends to marketing content disguised as editorial and packaged up into ‘Partner Zones’ , ‘Premium Hubs’ and ‘Recommended Content’.
Hasn’t this been around forever?Yes, it has. It was called ‘advertorial’. But it used to be well-signaled as advertorial, so you could ignore it without fearing you might be missing something good. Today, it’s often slipped into your stream or smuggled under your cursor in disguise. Which is why it works. And why it won’t just fail, it’ll also take down some very valuable things with it.
Why is the native advertising trend so dangerous?Because it sells the single most valuable commodity in all commerce – and the most valuable thing any publisher has ever had. It sells our trust. And it sells it cheap.
A real-world example.I’ve been increasingly bothered by the blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial lately. So, in an effort to learn more, I Googled the term, “Native Advertising”. These were the top two results – just under the sponsored results (which are themselves an example of native advertising):
The first is by Wikipedia – always one of my first go-to sources on any topic.Why? Because it doesn’t take advertising. Jimmy Wales may never be as rich as the guys who sold Tumblr to Yahoo, but he’s got something far better: integrity.
The second listing is by the Guardian.Great. I trust the Guardian. I get it at home. Let’s see what they have to say about native advertising. I click through and find myself on theguardian.com. I start reading the article, “What is native advertising anyway?”. Seems like a reasonable enough piece… But, halfway through, I notice that this is a rather one-sided view of native advertising. Nothing about the controversial nature of the technique. Nothing about the ethical implications. And I start to wonder if I’m really on the Guardian. It looks like the Guardian and feels like the Guardian. But then I notice, I’m actually in something called the Media Network Partner Zone. What the hell is that? Turns out this zone is a collection of content sponsored by… Outbrain. A provider of native advertising solutions. And the article I’ve been reading was written by Tony Hallet (via something called Guardian Professional Networks) I click through to find that Tony Hallet is from Collective Content… an agency. Now I realise I’ve been reading an article by an agency on a channel sponsored by a vendor – about a topic that both the vendor and agency have a vested interest in spinning. Not the neutral, third-party evaluation I expected from my trusted news source. An advertorial inside an advertorial… in editorial clothes. Now I’m intrigued. I click through to one of the many ‘Guardian Professional Networks’ – the Digital Media Network… …and, again, I arrive at something that looks and feels like Guardian editorial. It’s a busy page packed with what looks like Guardian content. And some of it is (I think). But a lot of it isn’t. There’s a list of ‘Hubs‘ down the right-hand side, many of which are sponsored. I click on the Advertising Hub – and arrive at the ‘Advertising Media Network‘. It doesn’t look sponsored yet, so I think I’m finally free of marketing disguised as editorial. But I click on the lead article: ‘Viewability: a client marketer’s guide‘ – and now I’m reading something in the ‘Agencies Hub‘ supported by the Marketing Agencies Association. The article is by Kirsten Miller, from Maxus, a media agency. Weird. I thought I had escaped the sponsored and ‘contributed’ stuff. I go back to the Digital Media Network – that busy, editorial-packed page – and discover more content that is not really editorial at all: The ‘From our partners‘ section (above left) lists content from eBay, Nominet, Brand Union, Adobe, Microsoft and Outbrain — all of which looks almost exactly like all the other editorial on the page (except that it’s in a section under that tiny bit of text: ‘From our partners’). I keep exploring, desperate to find something not paid for. How about the ‘Live Q&As‘ section (above right) – another stack of content on things like digital trends and cloud computing. These are each marked ‘sponsored content’ if you care to notice – but they don’t look like sponsored content. They look like Guardian content.
REMEMBER:I started this with a Google search, in an attempt to get an answer to my question, ‘What is native advertising?’ I picked the Guardian as my trusted source. And all I got was a stack of marketing content disguised (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) as editorial. And remember: I’m in marketing. I’m way more media savvy than the average reader. And a lot of this stuff fooled me. So where does this leave me? Here’s where: When I started my search, I trusted the Guardian. Now I don’t. And where does that leave the Guardian? In a very bad place.
Trust for sale.Like every other newspaper in the world, The Guardian is under enormous pressure. I get that. But I don’t get that The Guardian has failed to see the consequences of intentionally blurring the lines between their real product – their independent analysis and judgement – and this fake stuff they’re peddling under the same masthead. It took The Guardian more than a hundred years to earn the trust of its readers. But it’s willing – no, eager – to sell this, it’s most precious asset, to any brand with a budget. And they’re far from alone.
Marketers: come and get it.My advice to marketers: come and get it while the getting’s good. Some of the world’s best media brands – from the New York Time to Forbes to the best trade publications in every industry – are selling off their trust assets. Now is the time to harness that trust to get people to your content. Grab it before readers figure it out and the whole thing collapses. (Of course, if YOU betray it with dishonest content, you’ll pay the price).
Readers: caveat lectorMy advice to readers: be very careful out there. The information sources you’ve trusted the most are betraying that trust.
How you know you’re in sleaze territory: a reader’s guideThe native advertising industry thrives on blurred lines between editorial and marketing. So it can be hard to know what’s kosher and what’s not. Here’s are some of the signs that you’ve been sold out:
- Weasel words to try to disguise the source of the content – like ‘from our partners’ or ‘suggested post’ or ‘X hub’ or ‘Y zone’
- A labyrinth of layers – so you never know if you’re on a sponsored hub or a real page.
- Pseudo-editorial headlines and tone of voice – matching the site’s actual content
- Smaller and more subtle sponsorship indicators – if there are any at all
- False transparency – in most cases, you’ll be able to discover the small-type disclosure (though not always). This lets publisher plead transparency while practicing opacity (see below).