Growing Pains: The Atlantic’s Lesson in Native Advertising

It was bound to happen to someone. After The Atlantic’s revealing episode with the Church of Scientology and its sponsored content or “native ad” earlier this week, a cascade of questions and criticism of the native format itself has rained down in the aftermath.

Is native advertising more trouble than it’s worth?  

Is “branded content” nothing more than a pseudonym for “ads?”  

Should editors be making decisions on advertising now?  

Is it ever really possible – or desirable – for advertisers to integrate into the editorial experience?

All good questions, and The Atlantic’s hiccup provides an opportunity to give them some real thought.  Lost in all the industry speculation, however, is a simple fact that has nothing to do with where the sponsored content was displayed, how it was labeled or who the advertiser was.

The sponsored content in question wasn’t good content. It barely qualified as content at all.  It held no value for The Atlantic’s audience, and the fault lies not just with the publisher but with the advertiser for appearing not to know the difference either.

There are plenty of examples of branded content that works in native formats, and not because the audience doesn’t realize the content is coming from an advertiser.  Audiences are smart and sophisticated, after all.

All successful branded content has one thing in common: the content provides value to the exposed audience rather than extracting it from them.  No matter the “format,” that is the difference between content and advertising.  It’s up to publishers to observe this distinction because they have the most to lose if it goes south, as it did Monday.  Generating revenue is no doubt a difficult task in today’s digital landscape, but any solution that does not respect audiences is not a solution, it’s a stopgap.

If branded content is to be “native” it needs to adhere to the editorial values and experiences the publisher expounds, not just the look and feel of the page.  Ultimately, the publisher may be responsible for that outcome, but marketers have to understand the true application of branded content as well in order for native advertising to work.

With this definition in mind, the Church of Scientology’s  native ad was essentially more “ad” than “native” and it wasn’t valuable content.  Consider the headline and subheadline:

David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year 

Under ecclesiastical leader David Miscavige, the Scientology religion expanded more in 2012 than in any 12 months of its 60 year history.

To what audience does an endorsement of Mr. Miscavige’s leadership and its effect on the expansion of Scientology in 2012 provide value?  Judging by the outcry over the sponsored post, which originated with the users, not the Atlantic’s audience.  Even under the loosest definition of “valuable content,” which may include entertaining, educational or otherwise informational content, the Scientology post didn’t meet that criteria for the Atlantic’s audience.

Let’s take the last qualification – informational content.  While the sponsored content in this case contained information, it provided no value to the exposed audience.  On a different publisher site or section of a publisher site, where the audience is looking for or expects this kind of content, perhaps the native ad might have even been welcome.  Not so on the Atlantic’s site.

But these are considerations for the advertiser as much as the publisher.  After all, an ad masquerading as content can potentially harm the advertiser in ways that a common display ad – where indifference is usually the extent of audiences’ reaction – doesn’t.  If audiences can’t trust the content they’re exposed to, the entire industry, including advertisers, loses.

As both publishers and marketers continue to experiment with mutually effective models for their businesses in 2013, more infractions will follow unless they forefront  this simple decree: respect the audience.

Brandon Carter

Brandon Carter is Marketing Manager at Outbrain. He began his career as a staff journalist for the Maine weekly 'The Coastal Journ...Read More

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