Two years ago we wrote a column in Digiday expressing dismay over the rise of “native advertising,” the brand-sponsored content in which marketers themselves produce editorial material. Almost all publishers demarcate native ads with labels, saying “sponsored ad,” but this isn’t enough. Our beef then was that native ads often misdirect users by disguising the source of a message — after all, a good “native” piece looks like a real quality piece of content, yet its underlying mission is to promote a brand or sell a product. Even if the source is disclosed, the underlying misdirection remains. Native advertising is too often the publishing equivalent of that old college chum who shows up at your reunion party only to push a business card.
Or is it? Recently we’ve seen an evolution in quality of native ads that has made us rethink this objection. We call this type of positive native advertising “The Frame.”
The Frame: Microsoft’s Modern Workplace
Here’s a great example of The Frame. Today we stumbled upon a video interview with Kevin Ashton, who in the 1990s was a junior manager for P&G when he noticed a problem. Retail stores kept running out of certain products that would surge in popularity among consumers, but his inventory tracking systems were always one step behind. Keeping up with this inventory game was like whack-a-mole, where a new hole would appear in store shelves just when he filled another. Ashton realized he needed a new way to track the location of products where they were in time, and so invented the idea of putting little RFID radio chips in each product.
“We could then sense where things were by themselves,” Ashton says, and he put his idea into an internal P&G PowerPoint called The Internet of Things. Today, Ashton’s coined phrase is the hottest idea in all of technology as everything from couches to refrigerators begin talking to each other.
We learned this story on the birth of smart devices not from Wired magazine or IEEE, but from a sponsored video by Microsoft, as part of its “Modern Workplace” series. Microsoft has created a PBS-style video documentary series on major issues facing business, with interviews of real-world luminaries such as Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and emerging robotic artificial limbs. It’s native advertising, but done in a way that provides immense value to readers.
The Atlantic’s Scientology Misdirection
We’ve written before that there are only three times of native advertising: “The Frame,” the most innocuous, where a brand sponsors text or video but does not insert itself into the picture; “The Insertion,” where the brand itself is pushed inside the story, such as a QZ.com piece on energy with a case study by Chevron, all paid for by Chevron; and “The Misdirection,” in which a publishing platform runs something where the paid source attempts to mimic unpaid material, misdirecting the audience.
The Misdirection is where brands really get into trouble. When The Atlantic ran a glowing Scientology article online in January 2013, the piece was clearly marked as Sponsored Content, and used different color headline fonts than the publication’s main editorial. But readers screamed, confused as to why a leading authority in journalism would apparently publish a puff piece about a controversial religion. Technically, The Atlantic did everything right: disclosed this was an ad, ran it is slightly modified content. But the audience rebelled.
A day later, The Atlantic editorial team published this apology:
We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out.
Then, The Atlantic got native right
Apparently, The Atlantic did figure it out. In March of this year it rebounded with a quality native advertising feat, a deep political essay on the dynamics between power couples in the presidency, leading with the question of what Bill Clinton will do if Hillary is elected. The sponsored piece promoted Netflix’s House of Cards Season 3, in which Frank and Claire duel for power, but only by carefully framing the bit, not by pushing the popular series’ characters too deeply into the content. Digiday called us for comment on the ad and all we could say sincerely was, well done. The piece tapped a real news issue — what’s up with Bill and Hillary? — the deeper interest of marital relationships and power, and promoted House of Cards oh so gently, all clearly labeled. We read the entire section twice.
So what is a marketer to do? The greatest test of native advertising may be to answer two questions: is the source of the material truly apparent (your brand is publishing this, so say so clearly) and does the content provide real contextual value (beyond just shoving your brand in the reader’s or viewer’s face)?
What Robert Scoble said
Way back in 2008, we interviewed Robert Scoble for his opinion over the rise of sponsored posts in blogging. The debate then was whether bloggers should take money from brands, and also should bloggers disclose they had before they promote a product. We raised the question after a top blogger, now a friend, accepted a $500 gift card from a major retailer around the holidays and then sprayed his readers with a profile on how great shopping at that store was; even though he disclosed he was paid, the event left a sour taste in our mouth. Thanks a lot, we thought, for sharing how great that chain is as you spend its money to buy yourself stuff. Scoble thought on this and responded that in quality native advertising, not only should brands and publishers reveal the source of the material, but the material must come off as authentic.
“The brands that protect their credibility and authenticity go up and the ones that don’t go down,” Scoble told us. “This world moves so fast, if you get caught selling out your readers, you will get exposed and derided, and you’ll be less for it.”
Not every brand can pull off native at high levels of editorial quality and ethical integrity. It costs money, and you may need products or services that are closely tied to real human needs and societal concerns so your story truly resonates. But then again, if your brand isn’t relevant to people and society in a way that provides true value, you have deeper problems than how to spin your advertising.