Smelling Salts and Delicate Flowers – Are Conditions Right for Native Advertising?

This is an article I wrote for the Media Briefing about Content Marketing.  In my last article for them I wrote about how lengthy, analytical pieces do well on the Internet (in the age of The Stream) so I felt under pressure to do my homework on this piece – and give you a nice, long ‘read-all-about-it’

Content Marketing might be a lifeline for publishers but it is often dismissed as a load of old advertorials – nothing new. Some reach for smelling salts at the very mention. Others think that creating the right conditions for it to thrive will prove impossible. It is a frosty reception for the potential saviour of media economics.

The reason it has a new found vibrancy is that the Internet, since 2009, has been reorganised around real time streams instead of dedicated websites. This de-coupling of content from websites has empowered brands. They can create their own content and drop it directly into The Stream. Theoretically, their content is as likely as publisher or citizen content to get noticed and shared. Theoretically, publishers, they don’t need you anymore.

Brands are seizing this opportunity. In 2014 expect to read about journalists and other content creators moving to jobs in corporations. Expect more job titles with the word Content in them. Content budgets will grow. Young, keen content companies will pitch big ideas to big brands.

Coca Cola is employing conversation managers, coders, writers, creators, photographers and film makers. This was prompted by the realisation that they generated only 10% of the online content about Coca Cola. Their advertising strategy is called Content 2020 and it aims to “move from creative excellence to content excellence”. Their corporate website has been reborn as Journey, a Stream friendly online magazine. It makes them more creative and nimble – quick to react, quick to lead. They aim to “kill the press release”. They will be press release free by 2015.

Simply throwing press releases or old style advertorial copy into the Stream won’t work. It will wash because it is too interruptive for the new world order. Instead, it is being replaced by ‘thought leadership’.

The Content Marketing Institute describe the logic as follows; “Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing… The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty”.

An example is BMW’s Future of Mobility series. They created four artful films within which leading academics, pioneers and entrepreneurs discussed the future of technology, cities and automobiles. The Content Marketing Institute claim BMW gained “added credibility as a knowledgeable and educational thought leader”. They also gained Stream friendly content.

Some Content Marketers are partnering with publishers because of their access to resources (from writers to analytics), trust and reach. Though The Stream lessens their power in some respects, publishers still standout there. The New York Times has 26x as many Twitter followers as Dell, their Content Marketing partner. Forbes has 26x as many followers as their principle partner, SAP.

Content Marketing within a publisher’s product is called Native Advertising. This phrase incorporates old school advertorials – advertising masquerading as trusted reviews (albeit flagged ‘advertisement’) to sell to captive audiences.

In the new world, Native Advertising needs to wash its face in The Stream. Non-captive audiences need to find value in it, share it and return to it. Forbes’ top performing Native Advertisement in October was posted in June.

NYU journalism professor, Jay Rosen, describes it as “a test”. “Brands now have to produce material actually worth reading and compete with everything else on the web. It undercuts typical PR, the hype of advertising and the type of dramatically inflated claims you see in advertising. That just won’t work”. For this reason, he concludes, it is “different from advertorials”.

AdAge offer a reality check, “rather than change the logic by which we view and communicate with our audiences, professionals in PR, advertising and marketing are largely finding new ways to do what they’ve always done: design content that promotes products and services. More troubling than that, companies are misusing the opportunities that are presenting themselves”

The Wall Street Journal editor, Gerry Baker, likens native advertising to a Faustian pact; “if [advertisers] manipulate the digital or print operations of those news organisations, it makes the reader confused as to what is news and what is advertising, and the reader’s trust, the very reason that those advertisers want to advertise in those news organisations, goes away”.

Editors talk about a church and state separation of editorial and commercial interests. Native Advertising threatens that divide.

Raju Narisetti, News Corp Senior Vice President thinks church and state thinking has created a newsroom “chokehold on the brand”. “Conversations about how a publisher’s advertising team and their non news content-creators can engage and work with deep-pocketed brands wanting to become storytellers have stalled over some genuine and largely unproven newsroom fears that sponsored content/native advertising will be the ruin of their news brand”.

But how clean have newsrooms kept their sheets?

For his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies commissioned research from the journalism department of Cardiff University to analyse every single domestic news story (2,207 pieces) in The Mail, Telegraph, Times, Guardian and Independent over a random two week period . They found that “41% of them were initiated by PR and/or contained material supplied by PR, and a further 13% of stories carried clear signs of PR activity”. They pointed to misleading bylines where rewrites of PR copy were attributed to ‘staff reporter’ or a named writer. Davies writes, “PR professionals generally aim specifically to make their own role in a story invisible, and journalists are happy to go along with that”.

Protestations about the sanctity of the ‘church’ are undermined by this state of affairs. As newspapers shed journalists many crossed to PR – and they’re getting their clients’ content into print, un-flagged, un-paid for, via the backdoor.

Remember the Content 2020 aim of Coca Cola to be rid of all press releases by 2015? It is interesting to think that a shift to Stream friendly Content Marketing might reduce the presence of un-flagged corporate messages in newsbrands.

Forbes has embraced Native more than most publishers. Their strategy, as described by CPO Lewis DVorkin, acknowledges that corporations want to be heard and are seeking to produce quality content; “everything we do cascades from a belief that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda. Forbes certainly has a voice, so does the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer. Native Advertising is organic to our experience. It appears on our homepage; it breaks into the Most Popular module when rising pages push it there; it appears dynamically in our real-time stream and channel streams… In effect, we’re sharing programming responsibility for our home page with our audience, contributors and Native Advertising partners”.

Forbes’ Native Advertising makes up 20% of revenues ($25m) – predicted to be 30% in 2014 – their fastest growing revenue stream.

Native Advertising can help publishers counter the downward pressure on (already low) ad rates by automated trading. Emily Bell puts it like this, “a stream of money controlled by publishers rather than a gargantuan bottom-feeding robot is enormously appealing”. Put it another way, there’s nothing like a burning deck to concentrate the mind.

But still Native Advertising is dismissed lightly. These six issues stand in the way.

  1. It may be over-priced. Steve Rubel, chief content strategist at Endelman thinks “2014 will see prices start to fit with what marketers feel they should be paying”. Emily Bell adds, “At the moment the curve of enthusiasm for the approach, and ignorance about its benefits or impact, are both at a high, which is the point at which companies make money”.
  2. It might not work. There’s a big stretch in the Content Marketing Institute definition. Did you spot it?  “If businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers…. [Stretch] ….they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty”.
  3. It’s difficult. According to eMarketer 57% of US marketers say finding content is a struggle and 63% find organising it a struggle.
  4. It is resisted. Forbes’ DVorkin admits that, “most advertising agencies remain stuck in their old ways: they want to stay on – and control – the message with slick packaging. PR firms, eager to take business away from ad agencies, must overcome the culture of spin engrained in their communications strategies”.
  5. It involves turning some money down. Endelman’s Rubel says “Publishers should say ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ to Native”. The NYT claim they will turn away boring brand stories – but premium ad revenue is hard to resist. Every botched execution is an argument for death by over-regulation.
  6. It is hard to measure. Some marketers are proposing Cost per Acquisition models but softer measures may be more appropriate (Coca Cola use an Expression of Interest score) but they might prove too esoteric for ROI disciples.

What becomes clear is that the idea of Native Advertising is a delicate flower. It promises to thrive in The Stream but it requires conditions to be absolutely right. We don’t know if some of these conditions can be achieved – it might be incapable of commanding premium ad revenues in the long run, it might not even work. Worse still it could die at the cold, clumsy hands of those that might otherwise nurture it – the editors, the agencies, the auditors or the over-eager money men.

What a wasted opportunity that would be.

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