Is Native Advertising a Threat to PR? It’s Actually a Weapon.

For marketers, native advertising is defined as a “form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.” This is a very clinical way to describe that native advertising is meant to mimic traditional content in as much detail as possible. To consumers, this type of content can be quite inconspicuous.

Orange Is the New Black - Native Advertising

After running their first native ads in January, The New York Times recently decided to make the disclaimers in their native advertising less prominent. In fact one of the most heralded examples of native advertising was the New York Times piece on women in prison sponsored by Netflix to promote its series “Orange Is the New Black.” The Netflix piece was consistent with the style and look of the NYT and had the disclaimer at the bottom (in small font), “The news and editorial staffs of the New York Times had no role in its preparation.”

The New York Times isn’t the only publication that’s gone native: Time has an eight-person team devoted to native advertising, the Wall Street Journal prominently features native advertising in its content, and of course native advertising is par for the course on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: native advertising offers publishers a revenue stream. In 2013, $2.4 billion was spent on native advertising.

Native advertising isn’t the only way that newspapers are pursuing increased monetization: third-party add-ons such as Taboola and Outbrain serve sponsored stories to online readers in a (slightly) more conspicuous manner, and The Washington Post recently added Amazon affiliate links to its online content.

For public relations professionals, this kind of content placement leads to a bit of an existential crisis: what is the purpose of traditional PR if businesses can simply pay to place content on demand? For consumers this leads to an entirely different conundrum: as native advertising becomes increasingly innocuous, will mistrust of native advertising erode their trust of traditional content? What I want to consider in this piece is how consumer trust of sponsored content impacts PR pros.

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Do people trust native advertising?

Trust Native Advertising?

Edelman and iab recently published a survey of how consumers view native advertising and the results are as expected. Contextual relevance and brand reputation are important factors impacting whether respondents would trust sponsored content. And respondents were more likely to trust sponsored business and entertainment content (around 60 percent) than news content (around 40 percent).

Trust Native Ads? - Edelman

Publishing platform Contently conducted a similar survey which showed that skepticism about sponsored content increases with education level: people with graduate degrees were far more skeptical about sponsored content than those with only high school diplomas. Overall skepticism in the Contently survey was even greater than the Edelman/iab survey.

Trust Sponsored Content?

People are generally pretty skeptical of native advertising in theory, which should be welcome news to PR professionals who have spent years building relationships and honing their craft to be able to get earned media mentions for their businesses and clients. But that’s not necessarily the case.

In both surveys, respondents were asked to speak about trust in the hypothetical sense. In the Edelman survey, some of the content was clearly marked as sponsored. Of course this presents a problem when gauging whether people trust native advertising. The more important question is how often people can identify a piece of content as native advertising. If they don’t identify the content as sponsored then presumably the reputation of the publication is transferred to the sponsored content.

In a survey earlier this year, 60 percent of respondents said they are less likely to trust a review if they know it was paid for by the company selling the product. Yet, sponsored content can create a 15 percent lift in purchase intent. There is a disparity between how consumers say they react to sponsored content and how they actually do, which is to say that there is an increasing gray area for native advertising….. and it’s not new.

There is a two-decades long body of research to back up the assertion that sponsored content is not (theoretically) liked by consumers, but is accepted in earnest by publishers and advertisers. Studies like this one have repeatedly shown a gap between consumer perception and behavior. And the FTC has even convened a conference to study native advertising in which they started by saying this:

“By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying deceptively that the information comes from a non-biased source.”

In a recent episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver satirized native advertising and its relationship with publishers (be warned that this clip has some adult language):

Publishers take cue from social media

If you recall when Facebook went public their stock fell into a prolonged slump. In about a year it recovered and now sells at about 175 percent of its initial value, and the reason for this is advertising.

Facebook - Native Advertising

Facebook changed their advertising quite dramatically. They now run their own ad exchange and allow sponsored posts to targeted audiences outside of a particular Fan audience. They filter personal post reach and have all but eliminated Page reach for businesses. For the purposes of this post, I don’t want to highlight the monetization, but the user perception.

My wife was lamenting the fact that no one she knows uses Facebook anymore. Her News Feed is sparse and filled with sponsored posts. But when we looked into it a little bit deeper – the people that she thought weren’t using it anymore actually were. The real estate on her News Feed was just being filled up with other stuff.

It’s a somewhat anecdotal point to make but one that has pertinence to PR professionals as it relates to native advertising: if native advertising imparts authority from publishers (and the number of authoritative publishers are finite), AND if the quantity of available eyeballs for any publisher’s content is finite, then real estate inventory of earned media opportunities is diminishing.

Put more bluntly: if you want a media impression in The New York Times it is now more competitive to get those now. But unlike my wife’s Facebook News Feed, it is plausible that this content shift could go unnoticed by readers.

If you agree with the analog of Facebook and non-traditional monetization of publishing, then you probably understand how publishers can (and likely will) adjust their mix of traditional content and native advertising to generate more dollars.

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Late to the party?

Native Advertising - Late to the party

The National Football League is a couple of weeks away from starting their season. One of the officiating changes this year is an emphasis on penalties when defensive players have contact with receivers, and in the preseason this has made for an unusual number of penalties assessed in nearly every game. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones attributes the officiating changes to complaints about the style of play of the Seattle Seahawks last season, when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl 43-8.

If I were an objective third-party (which I cannot claim to be as a native of Seattle), I might wonder why the Dallas Cowboys weren’t mimicking the tactics of the Seahawks with their players. If one team is advantaged by effectively using a tactic, it seems prudent that the other teams might do the same, right?

In 2013, AdAge ran a piece describing how Edelman and Weber Shandwick are leveraging native advertising and digital marketing for their clients. For analog-continuity let’s just say that Edelman and WS are the Seahawks. They have been using native advertising as a PR tactic. If the PR purist in you wants to pursue a strategy of earned media acquisition, that’s fine… as long as you realize that you are Jerry Jones in this scenario. And the FTC is the NFL. And that the FTC doesn’t appear to have any interest in changing the rules of your game.

What I wanted to show in this piece were three points: that readers probably trust native advertising more than surveys indicate, that use of native advertising is increasing at the expense of earned media opportunities, and that native advertising is a part of many PR firms playbook already. Because of these, it’s important for PR pros to consider native advertising as a tactic to get media impressions.

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders WestFor more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

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