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The opportunities and dangers in the native advertising land rush

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Even if you’re not in the media or marketing space, you’ve surely noticed that there’s a content boom right now and that many media outlets are handling ad-like stuff a bit differently. Brands are now making more and sometimes better content than in years past, and seasoned journalists and editors are smudging the hard black lines separating editorial from advertising.

For a few years now, I’ve been working in and around “native advertising,” though I’ve only recently (and somewhat grudgingly) started referring to it by that name. There’s a ton of opportunity here on both sides of the fence: new revenue streams for media companies and journalists (especially freelancers), and marketing channels that demand smart, engaging content — as smart and engaging as the “real” editorial content it coexists with — from brands.

My favorite flavor of native advertising involves working with a top-notch media partner and publishing a blend of opinions from established thought leaders as well as a few brilliant people at the client company.  When done well, these campaigns are great for the publisher, the brand and the reader — or at least that’s the goal.

But there are plenty of inherent dangers. On the brand side, it can be very hard for corporate spokespeople to write with a natural voice, and it often falls to me as editor to turn reflexive corporate-speak into something human. This can be a sticky proposition — nearly every piece goes through rounds of client and legal review before publishing, but for it to work, it can’t read like it’s been through the sausage grinder.

But the real challenges in this type of advertising are on the publishers’ and writers’ sides. In the rush for media brands to become platforms and for journalists to become marketers, we’re missing some important considerations — branding considerations.

Journalists: You’re brands, too

Journalists, let’s start with you: You should know that I only want to hire you for your reputation, smarts and objectivity. (And partly for your audience, but if you say something smart, I can find an audience for it.) That’s your brand, and you have to protect it as fiercely as I protect my clients’ brands.

When I reach out to a journalist with an assignment, I always stipulate that he’ll have full editorial control, and I expect him to exercise it. The client gets final approval of the content — but only on a binary “approve/reject” level — and the journalist gets paid either way. That lets you, the journalist, go about your business of telling the truth and saying interesting things, which is what we value journalists for in the first place.

You’re free to push back on my edits, ask tough questions, even tar-and-feather the client, if that’s what you want. It’s my job to figure out a client response to that. I once got a client to approve a somewhat critical piece, with the stipulation that one of their people could write a counterpoint to it. It worked beautifully — a meaningful dialogue between influencer and company. On the other hand, I worked on a project with the editor-in-chief of a popular news site and had to throw out a lot of his work because he was obviously trying to please my client. That’s a ticket to journalistic purgatory.

I work hard to protect the reputation of the writers I commission, partly because screwing over journalists is not a good earned-media strategy, and partly because a compromised journalist is of no use to anyone. But mostly because surprisingly honest writing is a great way to engage the reader and bolster the brand that commissioned it.

Not every advertiser gets that, though, and I see bad examples of native advertising all the time: articles where the final copy clearly either isn’t the writer’s normal work or was passed through a corporate-speak filter. Journalists, that hurts your brand, and you should refuse to participate in that stuff.

Publishers: Are you sure you want to be platforms?

The biggest danger in native advertising is to the publishers and their brands. On Thursday, Andrew Sullivan asked “aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?” And in my years of negotiations with media companies, I’ve been shocked at how little some of them value their reputations and brand equity.

The “platform” idea perfectly encapsulates my point: August publishing companies are opening themselves up to the rantings of every amateur and careerist who wants to add “columnist” to a LinkedIn profile. Those companies also let brands publish on their sites with very little to distinguish ad from editorial.

Guys, a trusted brand is better than an open platform, both for your readers and for your advertising customers. The internet is full of amateur ravings and branded swill, and is starved for great content. If you can make the latter, why open yourself up to the former? For new revenue streams? That story is short, and we know how it ends.

I talked with a publisher a couple weeks ago who is taking a stand on native advertising. He was getting too much crap, and his readers were noticing, so he’s going to start rejecting stuff that isn’t up to his publication’s editorial standards.

At the end of the day, he’ll be leaving money on the table by making that decision. But should he even be worried about the quality of the native ads that run in his publication? Should he pick that money up? Many publishers are asking themselves these questions, and you probably are, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Kyle Monson, who will be speaking more about native advertising at paidContent Live on April 17, is Chief Creative at Knock Twice, a startup agency that focuses on tech PR and advertising. In a previous life, Kyle was content strategy director at JWT, and spent almost a decade as a journalist and editor.

paidContent Live: April 17, 2013, New York City. Register Now

Image courtesy of Flickr user Dano

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