Editors note: A new subscriber from Contextly turned us on to this blog on exactly what readers experience when they click on some forms of suggested content. Required reading for LMI members.
Native advertising - essentially ads designed to mimic editorial content - was a key theme at both the recent National Association of Newspaper's MediaXchange and Folio-produced Media Mash-Up. But though lucrative, this practice can undermine reader or viewer trust can have a long term incidious influence.
Here are some examples of native advertising efforts good and bad, and some general rules to follow:
1. Content marketing as a service
More local media are writing profiles of business for directories, and, increasingly other specialized areas that reside either on the media's own site in a commercial area, or on the customer's web site. But these features are creeping into the core of the editorial side of the site.
An example is an online restaurant guide sold to a local restuarant association as part of a "go local" movement or restaurant week. Links from the editorial help build SEO for both sides. But if the page is included an interior, static page, it is not always marked "paid," so when it is found on the web, it looks like a standard review.
What if one of the restaurants included is actually terrible, and has a history of health violations and the readers have a bad experience? Trust goes down the drain.
It's impossible to expect sales to vet the companies they are selling to.
Solution: Always clearly mark sponsored content - no matter whether it is an interview, recipe, or profile for restaurant week. Separate journalists who write native separate from those who do not.
2. Expert programs
Even more confusing in its implication are "expert programs" that are becoming popular and financially rewarding, especially at broadcast companies.
"Top Docs" features in magazines have a sleazy high-end appeal (the fact that they look like they cost a fortune is part of the "success" factor, and the reader is presumed, rightly or wrongly, to be an educated media consumer).
But television is quite another story, with a broader, less educated audience. Typically, a "paid" health segment can include experts' "SEO'd" profiles online, plus on-air interviews during a branded "health segment."
A focus on health is presumed good for the community and without these sponsorships - and the ability to use their experts - some consumer-oriented programing would not be possible at all. Still, onair content is too often watered down to drivel or the slant of the message defined by the sponsor.
What if the dentist or chiropractor who bought the program is not really the best one or over-priced, but also the one that wanted to pay? What if they over-prescribe over-priced procedures? Should a newsroom anchor create a segment that appears to be an endorsement of their expertise in their field?
Solution: Minimually, indicating the interviews - and profiles - are sponsored segment solves much of this conflict. "Who" does the interview is also important. Keep news anchors away from paid segments. Magazines and other formats should clearly mark if an expert has paid for the privelege.
3. Advertorial supplements
Forbes "Brand Voice" is the highest profile program extending advertorials online in the B2B space, with loads of contentiousness on both sides. But they are hardly the only ones. Even The Atlanatic and The Nation have these sections.
No matter how clearly media marks the advertorial as such, there is a fine line between writing to be "of interest in context" and deliberately misleading readers. BuzzFeed assuages its paid content guilt by separating "real reporters" from the content marketers, both by job and physically in the office, while proudly pitting its advertising team against its editorial team to write headlines that earn the most "shares," ie the currency that has replaced traffic in this new disruptive space.
Solution: Splitting staffs is only a first step. The second step is vetting freelancers, who may be pitching stories to newsmedia while also working for content marketers. Minimally, a clear policy regarding conflict of interest should be in place, discussed with writers, and set in writing.
Finally, media need to establish guidelines as to what advertorials they will and won't accept, post it on their web site and invite feedback. This lesson was learned the hard way at the Atlantic Monthly after posting an advertorial written by the Church of Scientology. However, they are still one of the few companies that now have advertorial guidelines about acceptable content.
4. Related content
The most pernicious and under-rated source of native advertising - paid content posing as news in form and content - gone wrong are the "related content" areas, sometimes referred to as "suggested content" or "discovery engines."
The end of the page is a powerful placement, since it is where readers look to "go next." Often this content is also placed next to stories.
Supplied by companies like Outbrain and Taboola, these areas combine related news from the original site, promoting engagment, with pay-per-click links to off-site content.
Paid links can be clearly marked (paid on the right, news on the left, with a "what's this" link to explain what was paid). But this kind of demarcation is rarely made anymore. The paid link content blends in with "news" and sends readers down a rabbit hole that often ends not only in a cheesy commercial, but also vaguely disguised political propaganda that often contains factual errors in the guise of news.
A key purchaser of paid links for example, is corporately funded right-wing pseudo news organization, blandly named "NewsMax." Tempting headline links on mainstream news articles have a BuzzFeed-like savvy. There may be a picture of the president with a headline like: "The viral video suppressed by leading news organizations" or "Is a financial collapse ahead in 2014?" that sound just viable-enough to provoke a curious click, but leading to fake news that could make a Fox anchor cringe.
It is guaranteed that some less savvy media consumers are now parroting that news as, well, news.
Solution: Insist paid links are marked as such and establish guidelines for what kinds of companies can and cannot use your traffic to promote their agenda.
What bothers us about Outbrain (Editor's note: Apparently they've cleaned up some of their advertisers, but not at the time of this post) and Taboola clients is not just their anti-news political bent but their corrupting influence on trust. Fake news organizations should not be able to purchase legitimate traffic for pennies on the dollar.
So, while local media should by all means explore and experiment with content marketing, native advertising and the like, clear rules and guidelines need to be set and followed. We recommend posting all editorial policy, including rules for fact checking, sourcing and aggregating, on the web site in an area that solicits comments, to start the conversation.
Journalism organizations under-value their assets by keeping their rules private. If they fail to transparently carve and recarve the lines around what is journalsim, the key asset that media still have, the top slot in the hierarchy of trust, will slowly erode.
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