Several years ago – long before the native revolution – when I was the staff writer for trade publication called Mobility that reported on corporate relocation issues, the editorial staff was faced with a dilemma. Against the editor-in-chief’s objections, the sales team had included an editorial element within a package for a corporate housing provider. Lucky me, I was assigned with discerning how to write a piece that would placate our new big spender while keeping some semblance of editorial integrity.
So I did hours of interviews and came up with a series breaking down all the elements of corporate housing – what separated different economic level, standard accouterments, safety concerns in volatile areas, etc. It was comprehensive, yet didn’t give praise to one provider over another. The sponsoring company had ads appearing opposite some of the article pages (I do regret we didn’t accurately label the piece.)
At its core, the corporate housing series was something that would have appeared in the magazine anyway (yes, there was an audience for that). It was a series that we wanted to write, and the advertiser’s sponsorship ensured that we could dedicate the time and resources to make it great.
I was thinking about that story while watching John Oliver’s spiel on native advertising this past Sunday on “Last Week Tonight.” As a big fan of Oliver, I spent half the bit chuckling and the other half rolling my eyes, thinking, “That’s an over-simplification.” But there was something in his coverage that reminded me of my corporate housing story, which was my first successful native advertising piece (there’s a laser tag story from the high school newspaper I’d like to forget) – maybe because at the time I was so unsure about whether I was pissing all over the editorial/advertising wall I’d once held in high regard.
Oliver and crew deserve kudos for acknowledging some roots of native (consumer unwillingness to pay for digital content and the impotence of banner ads), they (sorta) miss the bigger picture – native advertising is not about camouflaging advertising within content, but creating brand-sponsored content that is as valuable to the reader as editorial content. They sorta get this because they give a backhanded compliment to NYTimes’ “Orange Is the New Black” piece, and I agree that is a high water mark for native.
The basic problem with native advertising for Oliver is that despite being intriguing content, it’s still an ad (to him). He compares it to finding raisins in a cookie rather than chocolate chips. I’ve been a lifelong raisin-hater, and man do I get irate when I find that instead of a yummy chocolate-chip cookie, I’ve bitten into some raisin-infused mess. But I think there’s a corollary to that analogy – those advertising raisins can transcend to the level of content chocolate chips. Instead of simply an ad for “Orange Is the New Black,” the NYTimes is delivering a gorgeous, highly informative piece on issues related to a Netflix program. It’s something the NYTimes would or should have published anyway.
I have an interesting viewpoint here because I don’t just report on native advertising; I make it too. Take our recent “How Viable Is Video Viewability?” piece, which was underwritten by Tremor Video. This was a topic that AdMonsters wanted to give a deep dive; Tremor had little-to-no input in what I wrote and the company’s name only enters the story because it is accredited by the MRC.
But one of the best and most infuriating parts of native is there’s no one way to do it – there are plenty of right and wrong methods. Oliver and co. mock Buzzfeed, but admit HBO used the pub’s native advertising program to market “Last Week Tonight.” And of course he cites The Atlantic’s Scientology debacle (from last January), which everyone agrees was a royal screw-up – I’d argue native has come a long way in the year and a half since.
Alongside media formats and consumption, advertising is going through a tectonic shift – think along the lines of when sponsored TV programs gave way to 30-second spots. There is a ton of uncertainty in the air and little in the way of best practices. Even Oliver isn’t condemning native advertising but is noting it can (often) be problematic. Hell, his old friends Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have actually done some hilarious native integrations for advertisers on their respective TV shows. While Oliver is cracking jokes, he sounds about as unsure about the whole endeavor as I was when approaching that corporate housing article years ago.
So I advise you laugh (especially at the potential for the news to interrupt advertising), but consider these takeaways from “Last Week Tonight”:
- Be careful who you work with. Always the case with advertising – be careful who you let on your site. Since native integrations tend to dive deeper, you gotta have some principles. I heard about a native guy who wouldn’t work with a fast food company because he found the company’s marketing message (e.g, “Fresh ingredients!”) utterly dishonest. Native campaigns are not something that will work for every advertiser – which is an idea you might have to beat into your sales team.
- A native advertising policy is a good thing to have and share. Figure out your limits – draw up every worst-case, embarrassing situation that you can think of. Write down your rules, and make sure your users can easily find it (notably by sponsored content).
- Realize that labeling will always cause problems. No matter how many times you stamp “Sponsored” on an article, no matter what hideous shading you use on the background, some users will feel like you are trying to trick them. And they will complain vociferously. Do all you can regarding labeling to make sure that’s a vocal minority.
- Native is risky territory. While native can drive serious revenue, one false move may alienate your user base. And you can bet there are plenty of hyenas out there willing to exploit the mistakes you make – new media has become increasingly dog eat dog. So don’t tread lightly – to paraphrase Uncle Ben, with great opportunity comes great responsibility.
Finally, if you can make it to our Publisher Forum at Columbia Gorge from Aug. 17-20, come to Monday attendee session hosted by Mansueto Ventures’ Steven Suthiana. In addition to native strategy, he’ll be examining amplification and audience-building tactics using content distribution platforms. And you can bet we’ll be talking about native all throughout the conference, including the Wednesday breakout sessions.