How many stories have you read about native advertising this week? Yeah, we thought so. Any closer to understanding exactly what it is, how it works, and how to gauge true ROI? Yeah, we knew that, too.
Join the club. We’re all still figuring it out. Native advertising is understandably under the glare of the bright lights, as everyone involved — publishers, brands, agencies, marketers — strive to get a handle on exactly what it is, how it can be leveraged, and whether or not all the hoopla is justified.
In fact, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen recently started a fire when he tweeted: “Proper definition of ‘native’: advertising that is worth reading just as much as the editorial into which it is mixed, from which it is distinguished.”
In a testy response, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis said native advertising – like a paid story that appears alongside editorial content – does little more than “fool readers into believing it’s not advertising, leaching on the authority of the brand nearby.”
Jarvis, and a growing contingent of critics like him, are apoplectic about a practice they believe blurs the lines between news and advertising. What they posit is at risk is the very credibility of the world’s news organizations.
Not to be outdone, Anton Harber, the Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, said in his recent “Business Day” column that the public relations value of native advertising is deeply entwined with what masquerades as an ordinary news story.
“Let’s make no bones about it: The purpose is deception, in the hope that the reader will invest the content with the same credibility and authority of a news report,” wrote Harber.
Harber also raised concerns about the implications for the future and reputation of journalism, asking what would happen if a media organization published a paid-for report that contradicts its own editorial copy. Harber said that confusing one’s audience only leads “to a loss of credibility and authenticity.”
The debate will continue. The hubbub about native advertising comes as media organizations are under increasing pressure to close the revenue gap created by plummeting print ad sales and still mediocre online advertising income.
On the other hand, media mavens like Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Chris Roper says native advertising can help solve the media’s current economic malaise by giving news organizations a means to take back control of their advertising revenue — revenue currently spirited away by advertising aggregators.
“Big advertising aggregators like Google AdSense are eating us alive,” Roper argues. “They aggregate advertising and sell it at a pittance. We create this massively expensive content and then ad aggregators like Google sell advertising on our content for nothing.”
But Harbor is adamant.
“In a sense, what I wrote and what I’m trying to say is a warning,” he explained. “Unless we establish rules, particularly around transparency, then it will do us long-term harm for short-term benefit.”
According to Roper, native advertising is not about deliberate deception, but about offering brands a platform for engaging with and understanding their audience.
“The real difference between advertising online and advertising in legacy media like print is that you can measure it,” says Roper.
Whether on radio or a print-related platform, sponsored content represents journalism’s continuing search for balance between being economically viable and informationally credible.
“Native advertising is not the silver bullet that’s going to solve the massive woes of the news media,” says Roper. “But at the same time, it’s not this dragon that has to be slayed.”