Pay to Play: Native Advertising Shakes Up Publishing Models

There are a ridiculous number of names for it: native advertising, custom content, sponsored content, branded content, content marketing, collaborative content. Or you can kick it old skool and go with plain, old fashioned “advertorial.”

Whatever you call it, getting brand-generated content onto the pages of “real” publishing properties is becoming a real business, albeit in many guises. It’s all part of rapid convergence of paid, owned and earned media.

New York Times-owned Boston.com is the latest in a fairly long line of publishers to sell sponsored blog posts under the rubric “Insights.” “Our advertisers, and particularly our smaller advertisers, have been creating their own content. They need to get it exposed. As much as 50% of small businesses are blogging. The one thing they want is to have people see their material,” as Boston.com’s executive director-business development explained it to Ad Age.

Boston.com aligns its advertisers’ posts in the appropriate editorial section, e.g. lifestyle or real estate.

Boston.com has joined a growing list of sites offering some form or another of custom content to advertisers, including Forbes, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed and Gawker Media. Gawker is so high on the model that they maintain a list of top-performing sponsored posts to inspire and lure advertisers.

Content that morphs into ad units takes on other forms as well. inPowered (formerly Netshelter) is a new advertising product that turns “expert” content into a ad unit. Say you’re Samsung, and Engadget just ran a rave review of your latest smartphone, for example. inPowered turns that review into an ad that can be run on other publishers’ sites.

Arguably, another model of advertorial are those publishers whose business model makes them increasingly reliant on content contributed by outside experts, rather than their own editorial staff. What was long a trade publishing model is now commonplace on mainstream B2B sites, from content marketing plays such as American Express’ OPEN Forum, web pure-plays such as the Huffington Post, to established editorial brands, most notably Forbes. While arguably this isn’t advertorial because the contributors don’t pay the publisher to contribute (and in some cases are compensated, albeit never handsomely), the reality is this, too, is a form of content marketing. Contributors are selling their companies, professional services, domain expertise and personal brands.

“Native advertising” takes many guises, and an equal number of pricing models. Some publishers charges basic CPM or CPC rates. Others calculate costs based on positioning on the page, maintaining a “featured” position over a predetermined period of time, as well as additional and often premium pricing for adjacent ad units from the brand contributing the content (think brand “surround sound”). Sometimes the publisher will help create the content (think Buzzfeed), more often it’s incumbent on the advertiser or their agency both to conceive of as well as to execute the creative.

The real challenge of this type of advertising is an entire set of new standards and practices publishers must define as the traditionally inviolable wall between editorial and publishing becomes increasingly porous and permeable. It’s not as if sponsored, branded and contributed content shouldn’t happen. It should, but within limits and parameters it’s incumbent on the publisher for setting and enforcing to maintain and defend brand credibility while at the same time exploring new models.

Some publishers are do better at this than others. Before the ad or editorial teams open the doors to contributed or branded copy, publishers must define and commit to these eight critical points.

Set and maintain editorial standards: Every publisher has standards in place. Some, such as the New York Times, employ a public editor (sometimes called an ombudsman) to represent the needs and viewpoints of the reader and to critique editorial. Publications opening themselves up to native advertising and contributed content require someone in a similar role. This person almost certainly does not work in ad sales.

Create a style guide for guest contributors This is a good idea for corporate blogs and publications, too. A style guide sets expectations and streamlines submissions. What are accepted spellings for the publication (email or e-mail?). Do links spawn a new window, or take the reader off the site? How much white space should there be between an image and text? With expectations set, production goes a whole lot faster.

Edit, and don’t forget to copy edit Regardless of how thorough the style guide, contributed copy must always be subject to the publisher’s editing process. If staff contributors are subject to editorial scrutiny, it’s even more critical that non-professionals be fact and spell checked, as well as accountable for attributions, sourcing and veracity. Seems like a no-brainer, yet at least one very venerable brand posts contributed copy as-is. It’s not unwise, though this will vary by publisher, to also subject advertorial content to at least some degree of editing.

Never, ever open the CMS to outsiders A very prominent media brand that publishes a great deal of contributed “expert” columns allows its contributors to post their contributions directly in the CMS. The result? Pretty much what you’d expect. This memo went out to contributors last July:

**Reminder** Using expletives can offend and alienate your readers and hurt your credibility. Please don’t use foul language in your posts and be especially mindful to never use it in your headlines.

Don’t base compensation on link bait ability Many publications don’t compensate expert contributors. Others pay on a per-item basis. One very staid publisher, hoping to build traffic to their site, experimented with a model whereby contributors were paid based on the traffic their columns generated. Result? “National Equirer”-level headlines and content in a business publication.

If it’s paid, disclose that it’s paid Boston.com’s paid posts appear in a sidebar box prominently labeled “Special Advertiser Feature.” Gawker’s paid content runs under the rubric “Sponsored.” Content that SAP and Microsoft pay to publish on Forbes.com are not explicitly designated as advertiser content. Paid content is nothing to be ashamed of. But it is something to designate.

 Vet contributors The five Ws of reporting: “who, what, when, where, why?” are all perfectly legitimate questions to pose to content contributors and content advertisers. Publishers are not only entitled, but obligated, to ensure content running on their sites adheres to standards that will uphold the publisher’s own brand and ensure the value of the publication to readers and advertisers alike over the long term. It’s not only fair to ask these questions, it’s obligatory.

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