Why one media trend could mean winter is coming for the communications industry

The drumbeat around native advertising has got louder and it really could affect media, PR and communications.

Scott Armstrong, senior consultant at H+K Strategies

"Brace Yourselves…" Are you picturing the Ned Stark/Sean Bean meme from Game of Thrones already?

Now, add "Native advertising is coming," and you have a trend which threatens a winter for the communications sector.

Let’s face it, the entire media and communications industry is pretty much Westeros right now.

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House PR and comms, house journalism, house programmatic and house advertising, to name but a few, are all competing for each other’s territory, while a growing force in the world continues to increase its power.

Driven by non-living algorithms, Google and Facebook represent the Army of the Dead (is Mark Zuckerberg the Night King?). With tactics such as innovation and disruption they grew in size as the disparate houses in our industry looked inward, continuing an internecine conflict.

And another such battle looms, as house media looks to native advertising/sponsored content as a path to salvation. As other plans fall short (chasing free reach to sustain online advertising) or seem too bold to be attempted (paywalls/subscription, certainly in the Gulf), the drumbeat around native advertising has got louder.

At the recent World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers WanIfra Middle East conference in Dubai, Jesper Laursen, Founder of the Native Advertising Institute, presented research that shows that by 2021 media bosses expect 36 per cent of their revenue to come from sponsor-paid editorial content, up from 20 per cent in 2017. Imagine, that’s equivalent to one in every three articles being advertorial in nature.

Reinforcing that, Carol Matta, of DMS - the Digital Media Arm of Choueiri Group - in the UAE, showed the conference Statista data tracking native revenue growth across the MENA region from just over $400m in 2017 to $800m last year (compare that to $22bn in the US).

Considering the bloodbath in online advertising, it’s easy to understand why the media is attracted to native. But, as with any new blade, it’s a double-edged sword that must be wielded cautiously.

In my previous life as an editor, I argued frequently that the media needed new tactics to survive, but I always advocated that at the heart of any evolution editorial content must be protected. Yet, there is a scarcity of quality in this new sponsored field (noted exceptions being the New York Times or the Washington Post).

In my last column for PRWeek, I urged our industry not to forget the importance of credible ‘earned’ editorial coverage. Increasingly I fear the media needs to be reminded, too.

Already we’ve seen titles in the Gulf turn down genuine stories (in my opinion) relevant to their audiences without additional spend from brands, as commercial departments seek to turn editorial opportunities into native advertising moments.

Done poorly, sponsored content has the potential to damage brands and erode the media’s credibility. The net result is a greater divide between the media and our clients, especially as the prices asked often dwarf the evidence of effectiveness.

The business case for native advertising needs to be built over time through partnership, rather than killing a golden goose before it has started laying eggs.

So, what can house PR and comms do? We need to be Tyrion Lannister and offer counsel so that a sustainable sponsored sector grows to complement other channels.

We can’t begrudge the media swinging a shiny new sword, we just need to help them point it at the right targets at the right time. Native advertising is not the weapon that wins the war for survival, it is one tactic of many.

In the army of the living, commercial and content need equal command if we are all to see out the winter ahead.

Scott Armstrong is senior consultant, H+K Strategies

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