What You Need to Know Before Launching a Native Advertising Campaign

The number of brands using sponsored content is growing exponentially, but not enough of them understand the potential effects.

I can remember eagerly anticipating the weekly advertorials published by ExxonMobil in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times opinion pages in the 1980s and ‘90s. Clearly marked as paid content, the advertorials were beautifully researched and written, and provided the corporation’s point of view on energy and the environment. I may have disagreed with ExxonMobil’s point of view, but I always learned something new from the content.

In recent years that type of old-school advertorial has been replaced by a new, and potentially evil, digital cousin known as native advertising. For the novice Inc. reader, native advertising is nothing more than a print or digital advertisement doctored to appear as editorial copy. Love it or hate it though, as Inc.‘s Laura Montini noted in a post featuring an MDG Advertising infographic that was more crowded than a Manhattan subway at rush hour, native advertising is here to stay.

In fact, in perhaps the only coherent section of MDGAdvertising’s dog’s breakfast of an infographic, a staffer wrote of native advertising, “It is a symbiotic relationship making consumers, publishers, brands, and advertisers happy. With consumers’ social media and mobile technology use steadily on the rise, native advertising’s potential is vast.” To which I’d add, “So, too, is Vladimir Putin’s expansionist policy.”

The Negative View

I’m a public relations guy, so I’m not an expert on native advertising. But as my firm has expanded and added a whole suite of integrated marketing services, we’ve been fortunate to recruit talented subject matter experts from the advertising, publishing, and social content worlds. In search of concrete advice for Inc. readers on the good, the bad, and the ugly of native advertising, I asked my in-house brain trust to weigh in.

Matt Lester, our creative director, has launched more successful advertising campaigns than the Bush and Clinton families combined. He’s also the most skeptical and wary of native advertising. The concept, he says, “looks like editorial, sounds like editorial, and smells like editorial. But it’s not editorial. That’s not what I would call truth well told. Left unchecked, it can easily become lies well sold. And with that, the publication loses credibility, the brand loses trust, and, hopefully, the agency loses a client.

Shape magazine’s recent native advertising debacle is a perfect case in point. The magazine ran a full-page advertisement about its four lines of Shape-branded juices, entitled “Water Works.” But, instead of identifying the ad as, well, an ad, the magazine’s editors saw fit to run the page as editorial.

Condemnation was swift and sure from critics including The New York Times, which featured the deceptive move in its advertising column. The Times article included this quote from the National Advertising Division, an investigative arm of the ad industry’s voluntary regulation system: “The Shape ad blurred the lines between advertising and editorial content in a way which confuses consumers.” Ouch. An advertiser, publisher, or agency most certainly does not want an industry watchdog swooping down like some latter-day J. Edgar Hoover in pursuit of John Dillinger.

Potential Value

Robyn Mait Levine was associate publisher, integrated marketing at Redbook before joining my hallowed firm as senior director of content strategy & development a few months back. While Robyn agrees with many of Matt’s arguments, she sees the native advertising cup as half full. “They’re not all bad,” she says of the ads. “In fact, during my time in publishing, I created many thoughtful, well-designed custom content units on behalf of advertisers that were always clearly labeled. They helped the brand tell a story beyond the print ad, and provided value to the reader.”

Robyn says that if done right, native advertising can serve the brand and the consumer without undermining the integrity of the site: “Publishing companies such as Hearst, who have built trusted brands and value their relationship with the reader, have created native solutions that are authentic to the user experience.”

Stop! You’re Both Right

Sam Ford, Peppercomm’s director of audience engagement (aren’t you just loving our job titles, BTW?) is also the co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. When it comes to native advertising, the native Kentuckian sounds like he’s from Missouri. Sam says, “Show me.”

“If the idea of native advertising were stated in this way, I’d like it: ‘Brands spend massive amounts of money on paid media. Instead of trying to convince an audience what the brand wants them to do, the advertiser should instead invest that same money in creating content the audience finds useful,’” he says.

Sam notes that customer experience is the new black of advertising, marketing, and PR. “It’s no longer about selling products and services anymore. It’s about providing insights and information about how the product or service can improve my life.”

However, Sam observes that most native advertising today doesn’t live up to the ideal form. Most native ads, he notes, feature one of two things:

  • Uninspired content that speaks at, rather than to people
  • Lines that are blurred in such a way that the reader is unable to tell if the content is earned or paid

A Modern-Day Gold Rush

An Adweek headline from last year nailed the growing ubiquity of native advertising: “Pretty Much Everyone’s Doing Native Ads Now: WSJ, CC, NBC Included.” In the article, a CNN spokesperson noted, “We have clear guidelines that distinguish advertising from editorial content, and any sponsored content on our website is clearly denoted as such.” It’s nice to have a voice of reason amidst the chaos, isn’t it?

Ah, the waters are murky indeed. Sites such as Buzzfeed have their own native ad networks that place the sponsored content of their advertisers on the home pages of other websites such as The Awl and Cracked. Holy confusion, Batman!

And the publishing community is stuck right smack in the middle of the native advertising melee. If advertisers can’t get their message across through traditional media coverage, they will go directly to the reader. The few statistics one can make sense of in the MDG Advertising infographic provide proof. To wit:

  • “Thus far, publishers are the main force behind content use, with 62 percent currently offering native advertising with others close behind.”
  • “41 percent of brands currently use native advertising.”
  • “34 percent of agencies currently create native advertising.”

What Should You Do?

So, what’s a poor, confused entrepreneur to make of this tsunami? I’d advise three things:

  • Listen long and hard to your audiences first. Let them tell you how and what they’d like to know.
  • Ask your audiences where they’d like to engage with you. It could be, for example, at trade shows, and not even involve online conversations.
  • If you choose to follow the native advertising path, always clearly identify your paid content as being paid.