Going Native: Will Content Marketing Work for You?

August 29, 2014

Tough sells: Every PR pro has them at some point. Your client may insist that their story is newsworthy, but experience tells you that the media is unlikely to agree. Other times, we need to introduce new perspectives that challenge the status quo.

Sometimes the op-eds and owned media in our toolkits aren’t enough, and audiences may be unresponsive to a hard sell. Is native advertising the right step? Or are we going down the wrong path?

Advertorial 3.0

David Ogilvy was dishing out advice on advertorials nearly 30 years ago. Whether it was pairing beer with shellfish and cheese, or touting Rolls-Royce’s luxury, he provided messages that blended news and editorial. So is native advertising really a new concept?

“It’s absolutely not a new concept,” says Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich and author of the “Spin Sucks” book and blog. “It’s just a fancy new title. I’d even call it ‘advertorials 3.0.’”

Joe McCambley, founder and creative director of The Wonder Factory, sees things differently. He sees advertorials as a blatant effort to persuade readers to agree with the brand’s point of view. Sponsored content comes with a brand’s perspective, but set through a journalist’s lens.

“Native advertising, at its best, is indistinguishable from good journalism,” he says. “It’s created with the intention to be as helpful to a reader as possible.”

Native advertising sets a higher bar than advertorials. When someone does it well, it meets the sponsoring brand’s expectations and the media outlet’s editorial standards to maintain trust with their readers.

Often media professionals use the terms ‘native advertising’ and ‘sponsored content’ interchangeably. While the terms refer to the same set of tools, Brian Conlin, a copywriter at Vocus, outlines three general categories of native advertising:

  • Paid syndication: When a brand produces stories, videos or infographics that appear alongside regular news
  • Paid integration: When a publications inserts a brand’s messages into a regular news piece
  • Paid-co-creation: When a media outlet receives money to produce content on a specific topic or theme

Early in her career, Dietrich developed a paid syndication piece for a termite control company. “It was a gorgeous piece and had a lot of really good tips on what to do if you had termites,” she says. “The last page had two paragraphs about the client’s product, so it wasn’t seen as overt advertising. … If not for it being a tear out or the ‘special advertising section’ printed across the top, [then] it would have looked just like any other article.”

Her efforts were successful because of their alignment with the publication and its effectiveness at meeting a brand’s ultimate objectives — whether it’s sales, donations or other behavior.

Exciting examples

Some media outlets are using sponsored content particularly well.

Dietrich and Steve Rubel, executive vice president, global strategies and insights for Edelman, point to the “Look Ahead” special feature in The Economist, sponsored by General Electric (disclosure: GE is an Edelman client, but the firm did not do this work for the company) and Slate’s coverage of dairy farming, sponsored by The Dairy Management Institute.

Netflix’s sponsored coverage of women’s prison issues in The New York Times, which tied to the release of the network’s “Orange Is the New Black,” is another popular example.

Hard (and humorous) questions

Not everyone is a fan, though. The GE and Netflix pieces raised the rancor of comedian John Oliver who likened the commingling of native ads with news to dipping Twizzlers in guacamole.

“Separately, they’re good,” he says, “but if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”

Behind the humor, Oliver raises some valid points. Today’s readers (or what’s left of them) aren’t paying for content, and the decline in eyeballs is leading to reduced advertising revenue. Media outlets are completely reliant on sponsored content revenues to pay the bills.

Consumers also expect advertising. In a July 2014 study, IAB and Edelman Berland discovered that 86 percent of respondents felt that exposure to online advertising is a fair price for the free content that they receive. Additionally, 60 percent are more open to ads that tell a story versus ads that simply sell the product.

This financial pressure is vaporizing the once-sacred line between news and advertising for many outlets, potentially undermining the objectivity and trust that makes editorial coverage valuable.

The sacred line

While it seems like the demarcation between editorial and advertising is dissolving, organizations have supported content development for years.

So why is it an issue now?

Because mechanisms for integrating sponsored content are evolving, allowing editorial and paid information to align through automated processes — like Time Inc.’s “Watercooler Live.”

The plug-and-play technology is appealing in an overwhelming world of big data. It also puts a digital wall between editorial and advertising. However, by taking the human element out of the decision-making, are we letting automated processes override thoughtful strategic discussion that supports media objectivity and good taste?

While publications are responsible for their own policies, Dietrich believes that PR pros can help support media integrity by offering content aligned with their respective editorial missions.

Content keys

The IAB/Edelman Berland study concludes with some solid recommendations.

First, sponsored content needs to be relevant. It should align with a media outlet’s audience, editorial focus and voice.

Second, your organization must be a credible authority on the subject. Sharing expertise with captivating storytelling trumps the hard sell.

Finally, authenticity is key. The relationship between the outlet and the sponsor must be transparent. Publishers need to stay true to their readers’ interests and build their trust.

If you want reporters calling you to discuss the topic at hand, then sponsored content may be a smart fit.

Dietrich explains, “We are the storytellers. Find the blogs and media outlets that best fit your editorial mission and work with them to create sponsored content that doesn’t overtly sell.”

The ethics imperative

Even though McCambley believes that good native advertising is indistinguishable from editorial, he does not absolve brand sponsors from full disclosure. “If your content is good, own it,” he says. “Labeling only comes into question when the content isn’t good. You shouldn’t have to trick people to get them to pay attention.”

If ethics are at the heart of a PR professional’s practice, then disclosure and transparency are the veins and arteries that drive its success.

Ultimately, media outlets must establish their policies on sponsored content and make them clear to brand partners — and, more important, their readers. As PR pros, we are obligated to ensure full disclosure.

According to the new Ethics Standards Advisory from PRSA’s Board of Ethics, “Public relations professionals may take advantage of the opportunity to financially support media partners through sponsored content advertising while preserving, protecting, and enhancing the objectivity and credibility of a news outlet.”

Disclosures should be clear and be visible throughout the piece.
 “Putting a disclaimer at the end isn’t enough,” asserts BEPS George Johnson, APR, PRSA Fellow, who co-authored the advisory. The authors considered the evolving nature of the media, especially with social, and understand that the same disclosure strategy won’t work on every platform. However, sponsorship should be as transparent as possible within each platform’s limits.

In the end, Rubel advises, “Be relevant. Be authoritative. Be authentic.”


Nancy C. Syzdek,  APR
Nancy C. Syzdek, APR, leads corporate communications for JT3 LLC and teaches full-time for UNLV’s Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies. She is a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and is the chair-elect for the Employee Communications Section. Email: Twitter: @NSyzdek.
Email: Nancy.Syzdek at JT3.com


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