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Native advertising: the perspective of an editor turned digital marketer

A post on native advertising has been brewing in me for some time, in the way a storm brews. I am conflicted: as a digital marketer, I find the concept of native advertising exciting but as a former magazine editor, I am filled with dread.

ulFor those unfamiliar with the concept, native advertising is the practice of integrating high-quality branded content into the organic experience of a platform, like a newspaper, for instance.  To give you an example, The Guardian recently launched Guardian Labs, its branded content and innovation agency. They partnered with Unilever in a purported seven-figure deal, whereby they would write and publish branded articles on the subject of sustainability. They clearly demarcate the section, so that the audience knows it’s branded content and the content itself is of value to The Guardian’s demographic.

Recently, other globally respected titles, such as The New York Times and The Atlantic have ventured into similar terrain. The New York Times most recently ran a native advertising piece with Dell, as part of a reported three-month, six-figure deal, while The Atlantic ran a controversial native advertising piece on The Church of Scientology. It received massive backlash from readers and even censored some comments. “We failed,” said Scott Havens, president of the Atlantic. “We published content that we didn’t work with our advertiser on. It was largely a press release. The comment stream exploded, and to control it, the staffer was holding back on publishing the negative ones.”

In light of this, the best practice around native advertising for publishers is rooted in common sense:

  • Respect and prioritize your audience’s needs
  • Retain editorial control of all content
  • Clearly flag the content as being sponsored, or branded
  • Ensure responsible moderation – don’t censor but do maintain basic social hygiene
  • Have House Rules so that people know what commentary is acceptable
  • Update your publishing guidelines

As a digital marketer, I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves, get my clients onboard and start writing some really cool content that will be published in an aspirational title. Putting on my publisher hat, I’d be cheering at onboarding such premium ad inventory and creating a brand new revenue stream.

As an editor though, I wouldn’t be happy. Enabling brands to compromise editorial independence is a real concern and in my opinion, a potential threat to journalism and the noble pursuit of the truth. It’s one thing if you’re The Guardian or the NYT, working with strong values, best practice and amazing brands such as Unilever who produce great content, backed up with laudable actions. But what if your title is struggling? The publisher values revenue over editorial independence and the clients have an unsavory public agenda? If The Atlantic can get it so wrong, what hope does your average publication have? I think The Onion summed it up perfectly with this satirical piece.

Of course, native advertising is much more far reaching than traditional media and encompasses applications as benign as sponsored stories on social media. The question is how different this is or will be from the good old sponsored content or advertorial. There is already a fine line between editorial and commercial content, it is quite hard to predict how much thinner it will get with native advertising and how consumers will react to this blurring between the two.