On “native” advertising

gaudifaceIn an email today I was asked by a PR person if I wanted to talk with somebody at a major newspaper about its foray into “native” advertising — a euphemism for ads made to look like editorial matter. Among other things they asked if native advertising would “signify the death of credible journalism.” Here was my response:

I think tricking up advertising to look like journalism crosses a line I wish (name of paper) would keep up as a thick wall.

In publishing, editorial is church and advertising is state. The difference should be clear, and the latter should not be confused with the former. For nearly all its history, this was the case with (name of paper), and all serious publications.

While native ads don’t signify the death of credible journalism, they do signify a sell-out by publishers using them.

If (person at the paper) wants to try convincing me otherwise, I’m game. But be warned that the likelihood that I’ll give native ads a positive spin — for any pub — is close to nil.

Bonus link — Andrew Sullivan on Native Ads: Journalism has surrendered. Great interview.


  1. Rex Hammock’s avatar

    As I’ve spent most of my career trying to help companies and associations create direct to (or with) customer media so they don’t need to depend solely on “advertising” through traditional media, I’ve had about 25 years to ponder this topic. (And much of that time, I’ve had your writing as one of the best voices on the topic.).

    Native advertising is the web’s current equivalent of infomercials and advertorials. I’m sure there are good examples of those, but for the most part, they are only effective for certain types of products in certain markets. In both cases (infomercials and advertorials), there are rigid and long-established regulations from the Federal Trade Commission and industry-groups that serve as life preservers for marketers and media companies who can’t tell the difference between the deep and shallow parts of any new pool. Native Advertising will end up being in that spot we now place infomercials and advertorials — not insidious, but used only to fill the space you couldn’t sell. And probably on some pay-per-action basis.

    More mysterious, however, is the bigger question of where the future of what used to be called advertising ends up. I personally hope that much of it turns out to be helpful information for (and from) customers provided by those customers and the companies from whom they buy products and services.

    We will all benefit from that.

    Transparent helpful information is a more effective form of marketing than trying to camouflage advertising in ways that attempt to trick customers.

    Trying to trick customers (or readers, viewers, users) always ends up biting you on the ass.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Rex. You say far more here in reply than I do in the post — and with good reason: you know a helluva lot more, and live with it every day. I’m just marching with the veterans in a parade celebrating little more than the persistence of journalism as a practice. (For many — maybe most — of us it’s no longer a profession.)

    I may actually have more to say about advertising than journalism, because I made my living in the ad business as well for much of my life. Wearing that hat, I should point out that what we now call advertising is a conflation of the pre-Internet kind and what’s called “direct response,” which has an entirely different ancestry.

    Anything looking for a click-through, or personalized in any way, is descended from direct mail, better known as junk mail. Not Madison Avenue. Direct response advertising has always been driven by data, has always tried to get personal, has always worked percentages that celebrate responses in single digits or less, has always excused massive negative externalities.

    Advertising in all its forms has always rationalized or ignored negative externalities. Even brand advertising, which has done much good in the world (for example, funding great editorial in print and programs on TV and radio), is typified by this legendary Sydney Greenstreet scene with Clark Gable in “The Hucksters”.

    Still, brand advertising, even at its worst, never got personal. It was aimed at populations. Its provenance was clear: company —> agency —> medium.

    On the other hand, today’s direct response advertising is a maze of opacities: a shell game in which even those moving the shells around hardly know where the peas are, how they get placed there, how many clicks are faked, and even whether the fake clicks are coming from robots or humans. Worse, we have the IAB and the DAA trying to convince the world that this crap is what pays for the whole Web, and dismissing the clear market signals sent by the popularity of ad and tracking blockers.

    But rather than go on about this, I highly recommend following what Don Marti has been writing. Don did the heavy research lifting for The Intention Economy and has taken the ball far downfield in the three years since then. Nobody is writing with more insight and depth on the subject of online advertising, and doing the work required to understand what kinds of advertising best support (and hurt) what’s left of professional journalism in the networked world.

  3. AJ’s avatar

    To be fair, native advertising is still a vast improvement over traditional display ads and brings the web closer to how television works.

    Native advertising is ads that look like the native content of the medium but promoted by a sponsor.

    I believe that some mediums lend themselves to native advertising very well and some don’t. In addition, there are some basic rules that seem to be critical to make native work.

    1. Native advertising may take the form and shape of the medium ( tweets, posts etc.) but cannot pretend to be native content. It needs to be explicitly and clearly marked as sponsored.

    2. They need to be short and simple. This is why advertorial, infomercial etc. are really bad ideas in mediums related to long-form journalism.

    3. They need to be in line with customer expectations and be consistent. ( for example, 1 in every 20 FB posts is promoted, 2 minute ad break every 7 minutes etc.)

    4. Good native ads are memorable, entertaining and contain explicit calls to action.

    When these rules are violated, customer sensibilities are trampled upon. However, when publishers and advertisers handle native advertising with care, it can be a very helpful tool in your marketing arsenal. Almost all FB and Twitter advertising today is native and is arguably delivering good returns for marketers in terms of CTRs or downloads.

    There are still valid concerns around over-all conversion, quality of traffic etc. but there is no denying that native is a valid advertising medium, when marketers and publishers know the limits and boundaries.

  4. Tim Callington’s avatar

    To look at it from a different perspective – that of the company placing the ad – there’s also a risk to credibility to consider. If the ad is misinterpreted as editorial it could lead to the accusation that the advertiser is deliberately attempting to mislead, which will undermine trust and risk the brand reputation in the long-term. Handle with care!

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