The media storm surrounding HSBC and The Telegraph has brought the issue of advertiser influence at leading publications to the fore.
The media debate around the increasing influence of advertisers over the editorial integrity of national publications has been raging for a long time. Some journalists see the pernicious influence of advertisers and what Peter Oborne described as the growing influence of 'shady executives' within publishing as something that needs to be addressed.
In his scathing comments about resigning as the Telegraph's political commentator, Oborne described the paper's coverage of HSBC as "a fraud on its readers". He said: "If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril."
What this episode shows is the continued struggle of many publishers to live in the digital world. Faced with falling circulations and competition from digital rivals, some publications now fall to panic at the mere hint of losing a key advertising partner and chasing what Oborne calls ‘click culture'.
The once sacrosanct division of advertising and editorial has been broken by many publishers – and as any journalist who has ever worked on a tight ad-funded publishing venture will know – it’s generally commercial objectives that win out.
Commercial pressure is at the heart of the issue. Native advertising often bears the brunt of criticism from media commentators when it comes to this debate. But it is worth noting that this episode was based around wider print and digital advertising budgets as a whole, not just native advertising.
Many publishers and advertisers will inevitably be looking more closely at their native advertising set-up in the wake of this saga. Native being the process of promoting branded content to a publisher’s audience in an environment that looks and feels like the other editorial content that surrounds it, or put more simply – an advertorial for the digital age (for the more traditionally minded).
The medium has its detractors but also many advocates. The IAB PwC report shows spend for H1 2014 of over £216m. It is increasingly a key component of publisher ad revenues. There is a legal requirement for all native advertising to carry attribution – ‘promoted by’, ‘sponsored content’ ‘advertising promotion’ etc.
The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has recently issued guidelines on native advertising for the first time. Plus, consumer research indicates that while some journos get a little hot under the collar at the mere mention of the word native, most consumers recognise the distinction between branded content and editorial easily. In fact, the native advertising industry as a whole, alongside publishers, has been remarkably good at self-regulating and labelling native ads effectively.
So what is the solution?
The furore surrounding the HSBC issue will undoubtedly make many publishers self-regulate their ad/ed divide. New protocols for in-house teams will develop. Most publishers were looking at this already of course. This will only accelerate changes.
The digital advertising industry as a whole is also playing its part. Brands themselves continue to create some truly engaging content that is less about the ‘hard sell’ and more about genuinely informing their target audience. The ‘click culture’ of chasing online visitors is something that brands, their agencies, trade bodies and ad-tech vendors across the digital divide are keen to address – and have been debating for a very long time about how to implement. Publishers are no different and are part of the solution that will come.
But there are other measures that publishers can take. They can, for example, work more closely with content creation teams at agencies and native advertising vendors to get the right branded content for their audience. They can also, as many publishers are doing, create specific brand content teams too. Completely separate from their editorial newsrooms.
They also need to implement new native ad-tech tools too. Creative technologists are working on ways brands and publishers can connect with people. No publisher can run a native advertising campaign through their CMS system alone and expect to claim that there is no commercial crossover with editorial teams. Reporting the success or failure of a native ad campaign needs to be run independently, via specialist native ad platforms, not through a CMS and Google analytics.
The real value of leading publishers to brand advertisers is that they have engaged audiences and a reputation for authority.
There is a major boom in content marketing among brands. The growth is unprecedented. Most publishers are cashing in on this in some shape or form by running content recommendation tools and in-feed native ad formats. But what this also means is that publishers are no longer the only conduit of information. Brands can speak directly to their customers via native advertising and social media. But they still want to work with leading publishers. Why? Because they have audience and trust.
No one wants prestigious publishers to lose that prestige. From an advertising perspective it could be a disaster. The very media that brands are looking to advertise in would be devalued to an extent that they would be seen as irrelevant. There is a trust among readers of quality newspapers – with over a century of print heritage – that any new digital publishing start-up, or brand, just does not have.
The content marketing explosion means that brands are continually trying to think more like publishers. At the heart of publisher success is maintaining this authority and the editorial integrity of publisher editorial teams in the face of ongoing commercial pressure. It’s not an easy task. It’s important that publishers continue to think like publishers and that brands don’t use their considerable spend to change the news.
If done right, native advertising is a financial boon to publishers that will allow them to flourish – and invest in editorial integrity – for many years to come.
Dale Lovell is content and publishing director at native advertising platform Adyoulike