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A primer on native advertising

Native advertising can be a tremendously effective revenue driver and service to audiences. If executed poorly, however, it can quickly erode reader trust.

With a massive rise in choice — every brand is a publisher — and the targeting and scale effectiveness of the giant platforms Google and Facebook, digital display advertising has lost much of whatever luster it had to begin with as a marketing vehicle. For news publishers, particularly locals and metros, this dynamic makes it even more difficult to capture ad dollars.

Enter native advertising, sponsored content, paid posts, etc.

This field isn’t exactly new; digital iterations go back several years (much of Buzzfeed is built on native ads) and print “advertorials” have been around for decades.

The principle is simple: Publishers work with sponsors or advertisers to create content that has value to audiences, and appears “native” to the publisher’s site. When successful, it a) offers advertisers a forum to explain complex messages or otherwise engage audiences in ways traditional digital display advertising cannot, and b) gives publishers a way to monetize audiences and provide compelling content that fits its brand.

For native advertising, the devil is in the details. When native doesn’t work, it’s often due to poor execution: Specifically attempting to deceive readers by passing advertising content as its own. (Some publishers, including the Economist, expect to steer clear of this type of advertising all together.)

Connecting brands with audiences can create mutual business value. When nuance, authenticity, and voice are top of mind for advertisers, sponsored content builds their brand’s credibility in a way display ads can’t. Display ads don’t deliver this kind of qualitative halo effect, and eye tracking research suggests that many readers skip them entirely.

Key issues you’ll learn about in this Better News topic include:

  • Paid content exists along a spectrum of advertiser involvement/oversight.
  • You have to be consistent in presenting this kind of content relative to your normal editorial work. Transparency — including prominent visuals — are critical for setting reader expectations.
  • There are best practices for telling your reader when something’s paid.
  • Pick the right topics (when would you be doing this stuff anyway?)
  • And good product management practices can help execute this kind of cross-functional work without losing sight of audience wants/needs.