Native Advertising Part 2: Both Sides of the Debate

Love it or loathe it, the world of media and advertising has changed. With budget-crunched newsrooms cutting their staff to the bone, publications are exploring new advertising models that also fulfill their need for content.

Native advertising has become a part of the solution, funneling more content and more money to publications. But is this a good thing for the publishing industry?

In Part 1 of this series, we defined native advertising and examined the six core types of native advertising, as identified by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

Now we dig deeper into the ethical debates surrounding native advertising and look at the role marketers play in ensuring the integrity of content.

Skepticism Over Sponsored Content

Satirical television host John Oliver captured the native advertising debate in a recent segment, noting that to protect the integrity of journalism, “it’s generally agreed upon that there should be a wall separating the editorial and the business side of news.” Like Twizzlers and guacamole, he said, advertising and journalism are great by themselves but shouldn’t be consumed in the same bite.

Yet, native advertising inherently blurs the lines separating advertising and editorial, and calls into question editorial objectivity. The public seems to struggle with the idea of native advertising, as well. According to Copyblogger’s 2014 State of Native Advertising Report, 51 percent of the 2,088 respondents said they felt skeptical towards the idea.

Among other findings: 39 percent believed native advertising misleads readers, 18 percent would be very concerned if brands created content for publications like The New York Times, and only 6 percent would be concerned if the content was for an entertainment-driven site like BuzzFeed.

However, the results weren’t always consistent, as less than half responded that they would be very concerned if an advertiser or company reported the news.

In Favor of Branded Content

Proponents of native advertising see the value that it holds for providing revenue and content — content that the audience actually wants to consume.

There once was a time when the news was delivered once a day and the public demanded hard reporting from news outlets. But those days are gone. Technology has revolutionized the way we consume information, forcing publishers to rethink their well-established business models to keep afloat in rapidly changing times.

With advertising and subscription revenues down, newsrooms have been forced to drastically cut staff. Reporters must churn out articles at an Olympic pace.

Native advertising gives publishers a lifeline to remain viable, while simultaneously filling the pipeline with new and original material. In fact, some of today’s most trusted news sites offer native advertising programs. These include The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes. uses a popular tool known as “integrated recommendation widgets” that allow external sites to promote content on in an “Around the Web” box that appears beside regular articles. Interestingly, many of the brands using these widgets are in fact competing news sites, looking to promote their content on other media sites.

Trade publications also are joining the game. They’ve long relied on non-promotional, contributed content from industry sources. If content developed by native advertisers mirrors this format and educational intent, native advertising doesn’t threaten credibility in a game-changing way. When done right — and labeled appropriately to show readers the source of the content — this new breed of content may not have to compromise the outlets’ integrity. Yet it does help keep the advertising coffers full, allowing the publications to stay in business.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

While the IAB has developed guidelines to ensure native campaigns don’t deceive readers, it’s possible and inevitable that misunderstandings will happen. Opponents say that masking advertisements as editorial content not only stands to discredit the publisher but also the company sponsoring the piece. News outlets have built their reputation by being transparent and impartial; native advertising threatens that credibility.

Without trust, do news outlets have any authority? In the life science industry, companies selling laboratory tools and equipment are looking to reach scientists with their message. Yet, scientists are skeptical by nature, which makes establishing trust and credibility essential when positioning brand ambassadors. Will they be swayed by sponsored editorial? Marketers must work hard to provide transparency for this key audience.

Finding the Middle Ground

While it’s easy to understand both sides of the argument, many people can find common ground when it comes to maintaining credibility and ensuring both the news site and the advertiser take ownership when it comes to content standards.

Clearly, native advertising can only work if the source of the article is disclosed. Furthermore, it needs to have the substance behind it as well. The key is to collaborate closely with your content specialists and the publisher to set the editorial objective and determine which themes or ideas you want to communicate. The best native content will educate and engage the reader, not just serve the brand.

In the final part of this series, we talk to Bill Levine, director of Digital Media for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, about native advertising and the program GEN created to make this practice more applicable to the life science community.