The ticking timebomb that is native advertising

As we come to the close of the year, we journalists often turn our minds to drafting pieces on ‘the year that was’ and ‘what will be hot in the next 12 months’ and I’d say that native advertising fits in both slots. And it won’t necessarily be all good news stories. 

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With many brands being urged to be more like publishers (primarily by the content marketing industry) it makes sense that publishers too try to get in on the act, to aid their collectively ailing coffers.

As the wider publishing industry tries to transition successfully to a digital world native advertising is now taking centre stage as the de rigeur ‘revenue experiment’.

Just to bring some of you up to speed the advertiser attempts to gain attention by providing content in the context of the user’s experience, matching both the form and function of the environment in which it is placed.

So to cut a long story short, it’s where brands (and in many cases publishers as well) try to disguise their ads as editorial content. Some may say I’ve put that case too strongly there, but the fact is, ultimately this is the aim.

Earlier this week we covered how Trinity Mirror was relaunching The Sunday People as a “Buzzfeed for grown-ups” with picture-led, short-form content that will act as a “sat nav to what’s going on in the world”. It will also be driven financially by native ads.

What makes this stand out for other attempts at ‘fusing’ commercial and editorial content is that Trinity Mirror will ask advertisers sign up to a contract whereby they join a list of brands from which journalists can choose to associate their stories with.

In my mind, this is a perilously close line to blur between the previously sacrosanct distance between editorial and commercial interests. And surely this is one that must be ringing alarm bells at regulatory bodies such as the ASA and OFT.

Plus the potential damage such a practice can inflict upon the editorial integrity (in marketing speak that’s brand equity) on a title is quite worrying.

Another consideration to take into account is just what stance will the algorithm gods over at Google take on this? Will not drawing a distinct enough line between native ads and editorial content seriously impact a site’s quality score and search engine rankings? 

The reason I raise this point is that regulators here are often criticised for being ‘toothless’, but with the flick of a switch Google can bar a brand from its results, therefore significantly impacting publishers’ visibility.

This is not to say anybody that engages in the practice of native advertising is mad, bad and/or reckless. In fact earlier this week we also covered how plans were afoot to establish best practice on the trend with the establishment of the IAB’s ‘Native Advertising Taskforce’ (it is an American initiative after all).

This taskforce is soon to issue some guidelines and I will watch with interest. But until that time, my advice to the publishing industry would be this: don’t sacrifice years of brand heritage in order to make a quick buck.  

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