The window is closing on the opportunity to get native advertising right

Posted on July 2, 2014 2:12 pm by | Advertising | Media | PR | Publishing

Let's get native advertising right

Last June at the IABC World Conference in New York, Richard Edelman told attendees at his opening keynote that the PR industry had only about a year to get control of native advertising before it fell irrevocably into the hands of advertisers who would undoubtedly screw it up.

That window is closing and the impact of advertising dominance in the native ad space is already being felt. Earlier this week, Outbrain banned native advertising from the inventory of content it promotes on websites.

Many of the lists of recommended related content at the end of posts on publisher sites are provided by Outbrain and its competitors. They’re paid by companies seeking to amplify their content. Among the material these firms have been sharing is native advertising, material published alongside editorial content, but paid for by an advertiser which also crafted the story (or worked with a third-party group to produce it for them).

Native advertising has come under fire for being deceptive. It is, claim critics, an attempt to fool readers into thinking they’re consuming content produced by the publication itself when in fact they’re consuming an ad. It’s this criticism that led Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai to ban ads masquerading as articles.

According to a Re/code article, Galai will lose double-digit revenue as a result of his decision, but he believes it’s the right move for his business.

A review of the examples included in the article make it hard to argue with Galai’s decision. Tricking readers into thinking these are articles prepared by editorial staff for the publications in which they appeared is disingenuous at best. However, these examples also don’t represent the best native advertising, which addresses the two most problematic dimensions of the practice that Galai is trying to address:

  • They are clearly labeled, so there is no risk that a reader could be confused.
  • They are not thinly-veiled ads; in fact, they are high-quality journalism in which readers would genuinely be interested.

Netflix provides two brilliant examples. The first was published in Wired. Titled TV Got Better, there can be no question that it is sponsored by Netflix. Yet it offers a compelling overview, beautifully produced, of the changes TV viewing is undergoing.

The second example comes from a native ad in The New York Times that has been heralded as the Snow Fall of sponsored content. (Snow Fall, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, was a masterful multimedia work of journalism chronicling an avalanche and its victims.) The piece, Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work, is a multimedia work of journalism that explores the state of women in prison in the U.S. Netflix sponsored the content—produced by the Times’ own Brand Studio unit, launched to develop just such content in partnership with paying advertisers—in order to promote the release of the second season of its hit show, Orange is the New Black.

It seems clear to me that if all native ads upheld the quality and disclosure standards of these two pieces, there would be little protest. In other words, if it was handled by PR, which knows how to pitch a great story to the mainstream press, the quality of native ads would make them popular. But because most of the native ads are blatant attempts to deceive with little journalistic value, if any, the blowback from native advertising is increasing.

Richard Edelman’s warning is coming to pass. Outbrain’s decision is just the first we’re likely to see. But there’s still time. In an AdAge post, Rafat Ali suggests the following ways to improve branded content:

  • Approach a native advertising assignment from the customer’s perspective, answering their questions and solving their problems.
  • Go deep, with a narrow focus and uniquely valuable content that appeals to a defined audience subset.
  • Offer data not easily found elsewhere that provides genuine insight, including new ways to understand the business.
  • Approach native advertising like an editor, not a marketer.

That last point resonates the most with me. Brand journalism is the practice of a company covering its own news with journalistic rigor. If we can apply brand journalism sensibilities to native advertising, it could still prove an invaluable resource for all three parties involved: the brand, the publication, and readers.

But if the trend toward crappy ads disguised as editorial content continues, native advertising will fizzle and, if we remember it at all in 10 years, it’ll be as an opportunity lost.



  • 1.Good points all the way around, Shel. Richard Edelman was right about PR pros being in the best position to craft journalistic pieces that don't read like glorified ads. However, most PR firms and professionals have no experience in—or budgets for—paid media.

    I've been saying for years (well before "native advertising" or advertorials became popular again) that PR folks should be buying select media, but I don't know of many who do.

    It requires a shift in thinking and skill sets that should have begun with the advent of social media marketing, but still seem rare.

    Carri Bubee | July 2014 | Portland, Oregon

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