As native advertising gains popularity among publishers and marketers alike, industry experts say there is a need to create a set of standards to keep the line between editorial and advertising intact or risk eroding trust.
The exact definition of native advertising is evolving, but broadly it refers to brand-sponsored content on a media site that is housed with and closely aligned with editorial in subject matter, design, and style.
BuzzFeed, Mashable, and Quartz are among the digital-native upstarts leading the charge in this field, while more traditional outlets such as Forbes, the Associated Press, and The Atlantic have also worked with brands to produce different types of sponsored content.
Native advertising, however, has created trust and transparency issues, as advertorials and infomercials did in the past, because it threatens to encroach on the line that editorial and readers hold sacred.
“It is incumbent on both sides to be watching that line,” says Megan King, SVP at Porter Novelli, which unveiled the content-creation and brand-publishing service PNConnect last week. “From a PR point of view, we want to maintain the integrity of our clients, and I do believe we must disclose where the content is coming from.”
She says that as the PR industry takes a “larger step” into the world of paid media, there is an onus to produce “credible content” that is “honest and forthright.”
“Consumers are sophisticated, and if we disclose where the information is coming from, they will be in charge of whether they decide to trust it or not,” King adds.
Jason Wellcome, head of Weber Shandwick content-creation unit Mediaco, agrees that any unethical practices in this field will be easily “smoked out” by consumers, with the potential for backlash.
The best-known example of such a hostile reaction took place early this year, when The Atlantic published a sponsored post from the Church of Scientology that some felt was not clearly marked as such and did not reflect the publication's tone. In a statement, The Atlantic admitted it had “screwed up” and updated its advertising policies.
“It's pretty well understood now that transparency is critical to success, and both sides have to earn credibility,” says Wellcome.
A new revenue model
While many media organizations are using native advertising as a means of diversifying their revenue streams, BuzzFeed has built its entire business model on it.
“We are very upfront and transparent,” says Jonathan Perelman, BuzzFeed's VP of agency strategy and industry development, adding that the website takes the delineation of editorial and native advertising “very seriously” for its users' sake. “We don't want to deceive them in any way, because if there is deception, we'll lose their trust,” he says.
Perelman adds that BuzzFeed's editorial staff does not create sponsored content, and it sits on a different floor than the creative team that works with agencies and brands to generate the posts. Sponsored posts are clearly labeled and appear in a different color in the newsfeed, and the post itself will have links to the advertiser's site or social media channels.
For example, diaper brand Pampers is currently running a sponsored post called “11 Babies Who Played So Much They Tuckered Out” with a Pampers video inserted at the bottom of the list.
A successful native advertising unit must “add to the experience, not detract from it,” says Perelman. He says that unlike “traditional” online advertising like banners, such native advertising that is compelling enough will be shared by users.
Quartz, the mobile-first business site from Atlantic Media, has also built its business model on native advertising, although it has more recently started selling online ads. The outlet says it keeps the editorial and marketing teams produce posts separate.
Its native ad format, dubbed a “bulletin,” is shaded and clearly labeled in the newsfeed. Quartz also published its advertising guidelines on the site.
“The line has to be very clear and stops with editorial content,” says Jay Lauf, SVP and publisher of Quartz and The Atlantic.
“Don't fool the reader and don't try to create native advertising that is trying to convince [the reader] it is editorial content, because it turns the readers off, and doesn't help your brand or the marketer's brand,” he advises.
Bad practices are becoming rarer, Lauf adds. “Marketers are coming to understand it helps them to embrace transparency and gives them instant credibility with readers.”
Writing the rules
While publishers and agencies have created their own guidelines and best practices for native advertising – Edelman published its own ethical framework for sponsored content this week – there is no industry-wide standard.
The Federal Trade Commission does not have specific rules on native advertising. It has a number of guidelines, dating from 1968, which have been updated over the years with the emergence of infomercial and advertorials.
In the past two years, it has shut down a number of fake news sites that have promoted products and breached the line between editorial, albeit fake, content and advertising.
Mary Engle, head the FTC's advertising practices division, explains that when it comes to native advertising, the long-standing principle is that advertising should be distinguishable as advertising.
The regulator has not had any complaints about native advertising yet, but the liability would fall with the marketer, not the publisher, if it did, Engle adds.
“There has been a lot of discussion, and we are considering whether we need to issue more guidance on native advertising,” she notes.
Google has also weighed in on the issue. In a blog post earlier this year, Richard Gingras, senior director of news and social products at Google, posted a reminder for publishers about sponsored content. He noted that Google News is “not a marketing service,” and said sites that did not separate sponsored posts on a non-news directory would be in violation of its quality guidelines.
To bring stakeholders together on the issue, the Internet Advertising Bureau recently set up a native advertising task force.
Peter Minnium, head of brand initiatives at the bureau, says it is “very important we come together” because there are less experienced publishers moving into the space, which may not have “the same level of sensitivity” as a traditional publisher when it comes to trust.
While the group aims to eventually produce a set of guidelines on native advertising, Minnium says this is not imminent because the industry has not yet agreed on a consistent definition of native adverting, which would be the first step.