You can always tell that something has achieved critical mass when lots of high-profile companies have already dived into it with both feet and the government decides to take a look. In this case, that something is native advertising (aka “sponsored content”), the subject of a recent Federal Trade Commission workshop titled “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?” and untold industry conversations that praise or excoriate the growing practice.
Given the government’s traditional desire that the advertising industry self-regulate whenever possible, I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to predict that the FTC will end up suggesting guidelines for native advertising best practices, or will simply point to existing regulations that already seem to address the issue. After all, what would readers of such august publications as The Atlantic, Forbes, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post do without regulators helping to guide them through the current refurbishment and rebranding of what are essentially advertorials? Ditto for consumers who might not be able to tell the difference between news content, editorial, advertising and editorial that sort of looks like advertising but isn’t as visually appealing.
Let me acknowledge that I completely understand the hand-wringing by dedicated journalists who perceive this trend as extremely unsettling. Publishers of every stripe are fighting for their very existence, and journalists typically don’t know how many of them could be included in the next round of layoffs. But when companies like Time Inc. eliminate the position of editor-in-chief, directing its magazine editors to report to the “business side” for the first time in its history, the writing is on the wall, so to speak. Native advertising is one genie that is not going back into the bottle.
So the most important discussion for the C-suite is which of its marketing communications teams should own native advertising to produce the greatest ROI. Is it a branding technique that should be treated like other types of advertising and, thus, belongs in the purview of an advertising agency? Should your PR team own it because native advertising is all about highly targeted content? How about your social media team, because publishers make native advertising content very easy to syndicate across Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc. so that readers can promote it? And, being a search guy, I know there is powerful SEO value in sponsored content to help brands rank higher and more quickly for their desired keywords and content.
Answer: It can be any of the above, but all should work closely together as seamlessly as possible. Consider it just the latest challenge to the establishment and maintenance of marketing silos back when that sort of thing made sense.
So it’s up to publishers—with or without government prompting—to decide how best to use or eschew native ads and how they should be labeled and presented. Many magazines and newspapers see themselves as having little economic choice but to jump on the brandwagon in some fashion. The digital era has shifted plenty of their readers to digital platforms, but traditional advertising (along with circulation) revenue hasn’t kept up with the flow. If confused consumers mistake native ads for genuine editorial, that’s going to hurt the publishers and no one else. Some have already decided it’s well worth the risk.