LinkedIn’s announcement this week that it is to introduce sponsored updates has once again put the issue of native advertising – where content created by brands appears directly alongside editorial – back on the media agenda.
It’s a format that is rapidly becoming central to the way we consume content online, whether that is via Twitter’s promoted tweets, Facebook’s sponsored stories or newspaper sites and online publishers placing paid advertorial articles within their headlines pages.
But alongside the excitement about new revenue streams and marketing opportunities, brands and publishers are increasingly recognising that this blend of editorial and advertising has the potential to create new types of risk.
Although the principle of brands funding content is nothing new (newspapers and magazines have been running advertorials for decades) the extent of native advertising and the level of integration the digital formats create with editorial is on a new scale. A recent report from the Pew Research Centre estimated that this type of sponsored content is now worth over $1.56bn (and is growing 39% a year) making it ever more central to the business of funding content.
For platforms and publishers the motivation to go down this route is pretty clear: with revenue models under pressure and the old certainties of advertising being tested, new sources of revenue have to be found, and ad funded content and paid promotion seem like they could be an important way of earning the money required to keep shareholders happy and pay for the costly business of high quality journalism.
And for brands, these formats offer a hugely attractive marketing opportunity, combining an ability to build a brand’s resonance with people’s interests with prominent display to a highly targeted audience. They are also effective: one recent IPG study estimated that native advertising was viewed 53% more frequently than banner ads.
A return to interruption?
But one of the strongest arguments in favour of any branded content is that it flips the model of marketing from interrupting people’s media consumption with adverts to one of enabling it through the creation of compelling entertainment and information. As native advertising increases the volume of paid for messages in content streams, there is a growing risk that irrelevant articles will start to appear, undermining this very strength. Marketers are starting to realise that careful management is required to ensure their content is highly relevant and to avoid their brand looking like they are spoiling the experience of social media or news sites by pumping people’s news feeds full of unwanted promotional messages.
Audiences also have an expectation of a certain editorial style and level of quality from the sites they visit. Too often it seems that native advertising falls short of these expectations, with articles that are poorly written, don’t match the editorial style of the site, or are clumsily stuffed with SEO keywords. Audiences tire of poor quality content pretty swiftly, but the damage to the brand and publisher of being associated with it could be long lasting. It is therefore hugely important for brands to work with high quality writers (and ideally with the publisher’s own journalists) to ensure credible results.
Most important of all is the issue of transparency. It is true that the modern social media literate web audience is used to receiving content feeds made up of articles from multiple sources, so the placement of paid articles next to unpaid feels natural to many. But as recent controversies such as this week’s Coronation Street Twitter allegations have shown, even the suggestion of a lack of transparency in sign-posting commercial relationships around content presents a very real risk for brands.
Getting the balance right
So how can publishers, platforms and brands work together to avoid these risks and ensure that native advertising evolves in a positive way? Anyone who has worked in journalism knows the importance of having a clear set of editorial values, so perhaps one approach is to recognise that branded content is no different. Perhaps it could be as simple as ensuring that both the brand and publisher consider three simple questions before creating any native advertising:
• Relevance: is the content really pertinent to the agenda of the site, or does it risk feeling like promotional spam?
• Quality: does the content match the editorial and production values of the rest of the site and is the subject matter something the brand can credibly talk about?
• Transparency: is it clearly sign-posted so that users know that the content is funded by a brand?
If properly handled it is clear that native advertising and brand funded content can bring huge benefits: audiences get high quality, relevant content that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to; brands get to connect with consumers on a deeper level; and publishers get a valuable new revenue stream that enables them to keep producing high quality journalism. But unless brands, publishers and platforms recognise the potential risks and work together to guarantee relevance, quality and transparency, it is equally clear that problems for the model are likely to lie ahead.