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What Native Ads Mean for PR

by Frank Strong

What Native Ads Mean for PR

Following the likes of BuzzFeed, Gawker and the WaPo, among other media outlets, CNN is going all in on native advertising with an in-store studio or so to speak.

Writing for a WSJ business blog, Steven Perlberg reported:

CNN is creating an in-house studio that will produce news-like content on behalf of advertisers, a move that reflects marketers’ growing desire for articles and videos that feel like editorial work.

About a dozen staffers (made up of journalists, filmmakers and designers) will help launch the new unit, called Courageous. The division will fashion and distribute “branded content” across CNN’s fleet of properties, from TV to the Web and newer platforms like Snapchat…

…But the idea now is to work more closely with companies to highlight things that may have news value, such as the building of a manufacturing plant or a philanthropic effort, according to Otto Bell, the lead of the studio and former creative director at OgilvyEntertainment.

Mr. Bell said that his team would be staffed with “folks who have journalistic instincts” who would go into a company and “find that newsworthy element and extract that.”

The romance has barely started, but for many in PR, there’s a love-hate relationship with native ads.

The market is confused as to what these are, there’s a credible argument about misleading readers, a potential Google problem, and an open-ended question that remains unanswered as to regulation.  Yet when a mainstream outlet like CNN makes a bet this big on native ads it’s worth paying attention.

PR Implications of Native Ads

While I’m an advocate of using paid media tactics for earned media outcomes, I’ve had reservations about native ads as they’ve moved into the popular marketing lexicon.

Why?  Even as a PR pro, I value credible and independent journalism and the lines of native ads threaten to bleed the edges.  It’s a question of ethics.

Shel Holtz broke out last year embracing native ads.  He wrote a post to the effect – Native advertising and advertorials: Apples and not-quite-apples – that provided much to consider.  Mr. Holtz is, in my view, one of biggest proponents of ethics in PR and yet there he was advocating for tactic I had, until that moment, considered ethically questionable and said as much in the comments.

He responded:

When Richard Edelman addressed native advertising last June during his keynote at the IABC World Conference, he made the point that the PR industry had a small window in which to take ownership of native advertising in order to use it well, before advertisers got their hands on it. Edelman is behind a move to ensure ethical practices apply. I’m not suggesting there’s nobody trying to be deceitful with native advertising, but I’m hopeful best practices will prevail. A recent study found the public is generally fine with native advertising — but that it’s also important that they be able to identify the sponsor of the content AND validate information through third-party content.

Since then, more and more of my peers in PR seem to embrace native ads.  Even those I’d have expected to be staunchly opposed, like my colleague Daryn Teague, who I exchanged notes with today about the CNN initiative.

“I know what you mean about the implications for serious journalism,” he wrote in an email. “But honestly I’m not that dismayed about it — if it creates revenue opportunities for a company like CNN to continue employing journalists around the world who do important work, then so be it. Plus, I could actually envision a day when we consumers view more useful content from big corporate advertisers than the crap we get slung at us constantly now.”

4 Strategic PR Considerations for Native Ads

Even with misgivings, I’ve had an opportunity to see native ads in practice through several experiments.  There are several important considerations PR pros should give thought to when considering native ads.

1. What is the opportunity cost?  The cost of an in-studio native ad is surely expensive. It’s not just the space a business will pay for, but the creative and text too.  If you took that same budget and put it towards a freelance writer to produce contributed content, is the difference in outcome worth the difference in price?

2. Building on rented land. There’s value in owned media – its control.  After 220 posts and a couple years of effort on Posterous, the site shuttered and drove the point home for me that sites come and go.  It happens to social media sites and blogs, and it can happen to larger media brands as well, whether it’s Medium, LinkedIn Pulse or another platform. There’s a law suit right now that threatens the viability of Gawker. If the publication closes or is sold, what happens to those native ads?

3. Will native ads supplant contributed content?  Contributed articles and blogs are a staple of PR – these are a chance to make a philosophical argument underpinning a product or service. On several occasions over my career, editors, especially among trade publications, have been less than discreet in making it known a contributed piece has a better chance of publication if my company or client became an advertiser. I wonder about the impact native ads will have on contributed content. Ideally, it should have no impact – that an idea stands on its own merits – but my experience suggests otherwise.

4. Audience building.  If there’s a component of native ads I like a lot, its audience building. It’s the idea that a native ad isn’t a one-off sales pitch, but rather an invitation to visit and subscribe to a brand’s owned media platform. Brands would be well served by using native ads to introduce new readers to a branded site with a reason to return.

* * *

What considerations – or reservations – would you ad for PR pros?

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Photo: Flickr, Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0

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7 Responses

  1. LouHoffman

    With the economics of journalism still a wreck, you
    can’t blame publications for giving native advertising a try. 
    Do you remember a couple of years
    ago when Fortune announced a service called “trusted original content?”
    At a price point starting around $250K, you too could hire Fortune, yes
    the same guys behind the prestigious Fortune 500, to write the copy for
    your blog, social channels and even native advertising. Given the
    silence since the launch, it appears Fortune might have overplayed its
    hand.

    Still, more and more publications see a
    revenue stream in creating and selling content, not just selling the
    space around journalism. That’s why you have media properties ranging
    from CNN to the NY Times to Business Insider establishing business units
    that mimic the work taking place in PR agencies, advertising agencies
    and digital shops.
    On one hand, it seems weird that a
    company would both buy space from publication and hire that same
    publication to handle the “creative.’ P&G wouldn’t hire People
    Magazine to handle an ad campaign. Then again, publications already have the core expertise to take on the “creative” for native
    advertising and I’m o.k. with this.
    What makes no sense to me is
    Mr. Edelman’s comment that PR better hustle or our advertising brothers
    will lock down native advertising. Of course, advertising is leading the
    way with native advertising. It’s paid media. A single native ad campaign in
    The Atlantic would wipe out 75% of the PR budgets in the tech world.
    Instead, PR will need to scratch and claw to siphon off ad dollars for
    paid media that fits PR storytelling; i.e., sponsored content, Outbrain
    and yes native advertising. The real war lies in a company’s PR function
    trying to snag dollars from the company’s advertising czar.

    I
    also don’t view native advertising as an ethical challenge for PR. It’s
    an ethical challenge for the publications housing native advertising.
    It seems they believe the blacker the line between native advertising
    and journalism, the less lucrative the practice which in turn creates
    the slippery slope. Beyond the obvious, this issue gets into online search. As
    I wrote last year, the Wall Street Journal actually mixes journalism
    and paid media in search results on the site. Doesn’t that strike you as “slippery?”If
    we go back to the promise of native advertising, content in its natural habitat that readers
    actually want, few publications deliver on this promise.
    Because lack of relevance automatically puts the content in an
    incongruent position. Schilling a Lexus has nothing to do with the Yahoo
    Sports feed. The Onion is the only publication I’ve found that nails
    relevance, mimicking the parody in native ads. BuzzFeed does a good job.
    But 90+ percent of native advertising fails the relevance test …
    which means it’s actually not native. I think they call this stuff
    advertising.

  2. LouHoffman Wow, that’s a blog post in it own right. A few reactions:

    1. I’m a big fan of putting a little money into PR creative. Visuals, social ads, etc. we can do a lot with very little. Native ads seem a natural extension…

    2.  I’m with you on advertising owning native ads in so far as the spend.  The story is a different, well story. Marketers suck at writing stories.  Everything is CTA or benefit and while those things are important to weave into content, the blatant pitch they are prone to makes for a click-away. So I assess, advertising has the budget, PR has the skills. 

    3.  Did not realize that about the WSJ.  I’ll have to look. To me, it’s one of the last bastions of honest to goodness journalism. 

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment, Lou!

  3. DorothyCrenshaw

    Nice post.
    It seems to me that native’s impact on PR largely comes down to one thing: does it replace conventional paid ads, or is it funded by a budget that would otherwise go to earned media generation (PR)? I suspect the former in most cases.
    As for PR having the skill set for native ads, that is certainly true, but ad agencies are smart enough to hire journalists and others with that skill for their native programs. Also from what I see working for ad tech clients, the growth in scalable native advertising seems to more in video, mobile video, and other rich content, where the typical ad or digital marketing agency already holds an advantage. So, I’m less bullish than Richard Edelman about the size of the opportunity for PR.

  4. DorothyCrenshaw Hi Dorothy, I think it’s a fair point too.  It’s easy enough to write text, but the interactive designs are typically beyond the skills of PR.  Perhaps the biggest opportunity is influencing the goals and bringing alignment.

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