Doing Sponsored Content Badly: 'Native Advertising' Isn't Native If It Sucks

from the not-how-to-do-it dept

There's been an uproar about The Atlantic's decision yesterday to run sponsored content from Scientology, which consisted of a pretty poorly done advertorial about Scientology's "successes" in the past year. The comments on the piece included a bunch of "wow this is just awesome!" type comments that suggest both moderation and pre-planned comments from supporters. After widespread outcry about The Atlantic going in such a direction, the piece was pulled. Recently, there's also been similar (though slightly different) "sponsored" posts on Buzzfeed, in which staff plaster some company's name over a "top 10" or "top 15" list that they slap together -- often by pulling images from other sources (Reddit is a popular one), without making much effort to credit whoever came up with the content. There's even been a fair bit of controversy over the Associated Press' recent decision to allow sponsored tweets from Samsung during CES.

All of these seem like examples of doing "sponsored content" badly -- just as more and more publications are getting into sponsored content. While it's good to see publications taking some risks and trying something new, the downside is that it has the potential to completely scare off companies from doing any forms of sponsored content, even when it can be done much better. For many, many years, we've talked about how how content is advertising and advertising is content, and those who get it right are going to go far. The problem is that it's tough to get right -- often because the marketers themselves are so focused on old school "advertising" in which they have to keep pushing their message and their message alone, they miss out on the fact that this backfires in a big bad way every single time.

There's been a lot of talk lately about "native advertising" -- which is the buzzphrase around this kind of content these days. Many point out that "advertorial" is nothing new, and that's accurate, but true native content is something different. For years, when we've talked about these concepts, everyone has complained about said "advertorial", suggesting that it's annoying or misleading -- and that's been the problem with the examples above. But, when done right, it doesn't need to be either annoying or misleading. And we need to get to that point. Five years ago we put forth some basic concepts for why the world needed to move towards this model, and I still think they hold true today:
  1. The captive audience is dead. There is no captive audience online. Everyone surfing the web has billions of choices on what they can be viewing, and they don't want to be viewing intrusive and annoying ads. They'll either ignore them, block them or go elsewhere.
  2. Advertising is content. You can't think of ads as separate things any more. Without a captive audience, there's no such thing as "advertising" any more. It's just content. And it needs to be good/interesting/relevant content if you want to get anyone to pay attention to it.
  3. Content is advertising. Might sound like a repeat of the point above, and in some ways it is -- but it's highlighting the flip side. Any content is advertising. It's advertising something. Techdirt content "advertises" our business even if you don't realize it. Every bit of content advertises something, whether on purpose or not.
  4. Content needs to be useful/engaging/interesting. This simply ties all of that together. If you want anyone to pay attention to your content (which is advertising something, whether on purpose or not) it needs to be compelling and engaging.
The problem is that many marketers (and many publications) seem to really miss out on that last point. The content -- whether it's advertising, native content, advertorial or whatever -- needs to be useful/engaging/interesting. The Scientology advertorial and the AP sponsored tweets really fell down on that point. The Buzzfeed content at least got much of that aspect correct, but fell down on the kinds of things that often piss people off: poorly attributed copied content. There's no reason why Buzzfeed couldn't have done such a collection with proper attribution and most of the controversy would have been avoided.

And that's the real point here: it is possible to do "sponsored content" in a compelling way. I still like to point to the example that we did a few years back with UPS sponsoring us to do some videos about the topics we already talk about, leading to things like the following video about the economics of abundance:
When we posted that we were actually surprised (but thrilled) to find out that many in our community were happy to see projects like that move forward. That was because it was about creating useful and engaging content that wasn't misleading or just pure propaganda.

The world will get there eventually, but it's an ongoing struggle to get both publications and marketers to realize that "native advertising" isn't native if the content sucks and no one wants to see it (especially if it's pure propaganda, or otherwise enrages people). Some continue to insist that any and all such sponsored content is, by definition, problematic, but I don't think it needs to be. It's just that we need to get people in marketing firms and at publications to move past such a view of native advertising. The Atlantic should have known ahead of time how people would react. Buzzfeed should have made sure its content didn't set off a firestorm. And the companies paying for such ads should also learn that if they're just creating annoying content, it's not helping anyone, least of all themselves.
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Filed Under: advertising is content, buzzfeed, content is advertising, native advertising, scientology, sponsored content, the atlantic
Companies: ap, buzzfeed, the atlantic


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