When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

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.  

Readers' comments (3)

  • I can't help wondering how the author felt about advertorials, an earlier but clumsier attempt at "‘fusing’ commercial and editorial content". Or sponsored supplements. Or brand-funded publications like customer magazines.

    Native advertising is just the latest in a succession of bridges between of "the previously sacrosanct distance between editorial and commercial interests." Is there any real reason to suppose that, unlike its predecessors, this is the bridge too far?

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  • I think you've raised some important points here, but I think your concerns around native advertising are very specifically around some forms of content marketing, rather than the concept as a whole.

    I would define native advertising as simply ads that are styled to look and feel like they belong to the page. They are still very clearly ads, and (certainly in our case) explicitly labeled as such.

    Why make ads look like they belong to their environment? Because it makes for a far better user experience. Ads that are in keeping with the editorial environment are more likely to be capture attention because web users are a pretty sophisticated bunch these days, and don't like being visually assaulted with flashing, animated, garish graphics.

    In fact, I would make the case that highly interruptive, intrusive, and distracting ad formats do far more damage to a publishers' brand heritage than ad formats that are in keeping with their overall site design.

    Indeed ads that fit in with a publisher's site are effectively placing a value on the publisher's brand, and tapping into the reader's affinity for it.

    This is the reason why an elegant Rolex logo adorns the Wimbledon scoreboard, and why the IOC allows only a handful of sponsors a very tightly controlled presence at the Olympics. It creates a high quality environment for advertisers that is worth paying a premium for, without compromising enjoyment of the main event for the audience.

    Native advertising offers publishers the same potential outcome - premium high value placements that enhance rather than detract from the editorial environment.

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  • Interesting read, amid all the Native hype.. But I recall that this was previously referred to as 'Advertorial' - a word so horrible as to rival 'Phablet'. Advertorial was rightly viewed with deep suspicion.

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