The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
Readers and media observers widely acknowledge native advertising as a key ingredient in a publisher’s revenue model, but the practice is still in its Wild West days. Despite the fact that mainstream publishers have invested heavily in creating their own content studios and have launched numerous campaigns they are still struggling to define best practices for the writers who create this native content.
Regulators like the FTC have stepped in and placed three general guidelines on branded content studios. They ask writers of native content to be transparent, disclose that the editorial narrative they have written is an ad, and finally to be clear and prominent with this information. However these rules still leave writers with a considerable degree of flexibility in terms of generating content that fits the perimeters the FTC has set.
While the broad rules are a helpful starting point, they are not nearly as comprehensive as they need to be to properly guide the writers of native content. Authors of native ads have the laborious task of not only crafting a compelling story for readers of their publication but they also must weave a brand’s messaging into the narrative.
As someone who works on crafting brand stories for The New York Times, I have noticed the conversation surrounding the ethics of native ads lacks a nuanced understanding of how such articles are pitched, sold, and created. Understanding the process behind the creation of this content is integral to implementing the right rules for authors of native content. As it can guard against mistakes that are made when authors pitch clients on brand stories. This ensures regulation doesn’t simply take place after a native ad has been published on a new site. Rather by outlining principles that address the process of developing a native ad we can show writers what potential red flags they can proactively guard against.
Only after engaging with companies that are interested in creating native ads have I been able to identify what people inside the industry can do to not only protect readers but improve the reputation of the practice overall. The following guidelines are meant to provide native content creators with suggestions on how to best create and deliver branded content that protects the interests of readers.
1. Editors at each content studio should agree on one native ad disclaimer.
News publishers have an assortment of options when it comes to choosing how they want to label native advertisements. The FTC has approved any disclaimer that clearly states that the story has been paid for by an advertiser. They require publishers to be transparent about the fact that such content is commercial and that this disclosure needs to be clearly stated and prominent. But the disclosure language each publisher uses varies and this can cause undue confusion for readers.
For example, Re:Think is The Atlantic’s branded content studio and they label native ads as “Sponsor Content.” While The Guardian produces such work under the name Guardian Labs and labels it as “Paid Content.” I work in T Brand Studio at The New York Times where we create native content and call it out for readers as “Paid For And Posted By Advertiser ” with the appropriate client’s logo. While all these differences may seem minute and irrelevant I argue consistency is key when discussing the ethics of delivering an advertiser message to readers.
The FTC has provided a starting point, but they can also enforce uniform disclosures.
The lead brand editor at each content studios can agree to label native disclaimers with the same language their competitors are using. This reduces the ambient fear that the practice tricks readers, as they will always know what to expect and how exactly such content is delivered.
2. Be the expert and educator.
Native Content is in its Wild West days for reasons that go beyond inconsistent labeling of ads. The practice is unruly because many brands have not yet dipped their toe in it and they don’t know what to expect or how to use the medium. That is why branded content writers need to play the role of educator at the earliest stages of working with companies who want a story.
Nearly every client I have worked with has asked what the KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is for a branded editorial narrative. To which I have more than once said, it’s not to push product. Native ads are meant to engage readers with new narrative and drive brand consideration, not purchase, of a product or service. Educating clients early on is key to helping them realize if this is even the right avenue for them to explore.
If a PR firm could have written it, then you as a branded content creator should not have. The key difference here is that while PR announces new information and can highlight a product’s attributes native ads need to work harder. They have to earn reader engagement to be successful and impactful. This means writers need to explain that the story will not immediately mention a brand, product or service like a press release.
Expectation setting is essential to not only ensuring publishers and clients have productive relationships but furthermore this step helps prevent reader backlash and aggravation. Something that was exemplified by The Atlantic’s ad, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology Into a Milestone Year.” Native can not simply outline what a client requests, writers need to play the role of experts in the medium.
3. Research like a professor.
Readers approach native content with skepticism since- they know a brand paid for it. This means the author of branded content must not only keep their interest, but also prove a factual basis for the points the sponsor would like to make.
Substantiating brand stories means uncovering research and pivoting the story to fit facts as necessary. Writers of branded content need to be well versed in not only fact-finding but in working with third party survey vendors like YouGov to uncover data points that tell a truthful and thus more meaningful story.
If native content had footnotes linking out to such custom surveys or reports it would show readers a tangible story exists behind a brand. Allowing research to take center stage also buttresses the FTC’s guidelines that branded content should be transparent and honest.
4. Give yourself space to shift the narrative of a native ad.
News reporters have a general idea of the story they want to tell before they start writing but often, after they interview people or finish gathering information in the field, the story pivots from what they originally had in mind. The same is true for writers of native ads, they may learn something while talking to a key decision maker at a company or uncover something in their research that shifts the focal point of a story.
This process and potential changes to the narrative should be communicated to client early in the process of selling native ads. In large part what they are paying for is professional storytelling and that can mean shifting the story once writers start uncovering more information. Of course no brand wants you to shift what you initially promised to write about but all too often brands don’t have an understanding of how the brand writing process works.
Writers can solve for this by sharing timeline and process information with clients when they want to learn more about native ads. By outlining that the process starts with interviewing people at the company and users of the product or service they quickly start to see that a great deal of care is placed in crafting native content. Authors should feel empowered to explain this thus buying flexibility to make storyline changes that will ultimately be more interesting for readers.
These rules are meant to help authors of native content navigate how to best work with clients while protecting the interests of readers. Despite the fact that content studios have been around for a few years, the actual creators of such content rarely speak about the problems they face and how to best solve for industry wide challenges. Perhaps opening the door to this discussion will help inform the agenda of native advertising regulators.
Ava Sirrah is a creative strategist at The New York Times where she crafts branded content campaigns for finance and live entertainment clients. Previously she worked on Madison Avenue as a strategist for BBDO and McCann. Her current research explores native advertising’s ability to impact revenue models for news publishers.