Native advertising: it’s not just readers that need to know what’s an ad and what’s editorial

As media headhunters it’s common for our conversations with senior editorial and commercial people – at old and new media businesses alike – to regularly address the challenges they face in offering new and compelling solutions to advertisers.

These conversations often revolve around how a publisher can use the editorial skills they have in-house, and a reputation for producing high-quality content, in commercial ways that won’t alienate the readership or damage a relationship that, in some cases, has been built on centuries of editorial rigour.

So how do they do that? Well, it isn’t easy.

A recent editorial candidate told me at their (established) news organisation, they have clear boundaries to maintain the traditional gap between editorial and commercial. But this ‘traditional’ gap is no longer the case everywhere, and some of the UK’s most distinguished media businesses are peering directly into it in the hope of finding new sources of revenue.

Increasingly, media organisations are becoming more relaxed around the separation of editorial and commercial activity and redefining how existing boundaries can work. Under the umbrella of ‘native advertising’, the old lines between editorial and commercial are changing.

Guardian Labs (which I have covered in a previous blog) is an example of a business that does this type of thing well. Similarly, News UK’s The Times has been a pioneer of sponsored content. In both cases, commercial and editorial have been brought closer together, but only within defined parameters where ‘native ad’ content has been clearly flagged to the readership.

Exactly how close can editorial and commercial get? Guardian Labs has worked with Unilever, Beagle Street, EE and Direct Line as brand partners on digital content, but it has also turned down other work for fear of jeopardising the trust of readers, with managing director Anna Watkins revealing how it had rejected brands that did not fit with the company’s ethos.

“Native advertising in its worst instances can imply hoodwinking the reader [into thinking] that a commercial message is independent editorial,” Watkins told Marketing Magazine.

“That’s a short-term win, and our approach is about maintaining trust of the readers.”

The agency, Watkins added, had lost out on clients after would-be advertisers sought not only normal sponsored content but additional brand mentions. This clearly does not chime with the independent ethos which the Guardian claims.

With native advertising, or ‘advertorial’ in old money, appropriate labelling should make it clear to the reader that what they are reading is commercial content. Sometimes, however, it’s not only readers that need to be told clearly what’s advertising and what’s traditional editorial.

I recently listened to the excellent podcast Start-Up, produced by Gimlet Media (a business spawned out of the highly acclaimed This American Life podcast).

The Gimlet team produces great content and the company also does really innovative things with sponsored content – it actually produces audio ads that are of genuine interest to the listener – but during a recent ad for web-building platform SquareSpace things went awry.

The ad interviewed users on their experiences with the SquareSpace product. One interviewee was a nine year old boy who’d built a fans’ Minecraft site using the software.

The boy and his mother were excited by the prospect of hearing the interview as they had the impression it was part of the broader Gimlet show; it had not been made clear to them the interview would be used for an advert.

As with mistakes of this nature, a Twitter-storm ensued. An apology was offered and Gimlet Media then went on interview the mother about the incident for a future show about making mistakes.

While small in terms of scale of  breach (and well recovered by Gimlet afterwards), the failure of the editorial team to clearly make the distinction between editorial and commercial content serves as a clear example to media owners and producers. When seeking more innovative ways to present sponsored content, everyone involved needs to be mindful not only of how the content comes across, but also of the processes that go into creating that content.