Native Advertising: Should PR Shore Up the Defenses or Lead an Expeditionary Force?

With a host of media, advertising and adtech companies on the roster, many of our teams at SHIFT are grappling with stories relating to how native advertising is impacting these industries. But we have probably thought a little less about how it is affecting our own corner of marketing land. According to an Advertising Age poll from this time last year, nearly two-thirds of marketers planned to increase their native spend.

PR teams can either see those stats as a threat or an opportunity. Do we retreat to comfortable territory and focus on traditional earned media, accepting that some of this increased native budget might come out of the PR bucket?  Or do we capitalize on the growth in native and grab a slice of the action? If the latter, how do PR pros justify our role to the CMO holding the org chart and the purse strings?

Some fear that earned media impressions will be slowly eroded and replaced by pay-for-play content, with “share of voice” to become purely an analogy for deep pockets. Others predict that native will fail, rejected by readers as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. As with so much in life, the truth is likely somewhere between the extremes, and the industry needs to navigate how that should impact our areas of focus.

The Church and State Debate Dressed in a New Cassock

Older hats in the PR industry might struggle to distinguish between advertorial and native advertising, except for the fact that one belonged to the age of print, and the other belongs to that of digital. There are similarities, but the important differentiators probably lie in the current drivers of native: primarily survival! First and foremost, it’s a revenue issue for publishers, with print disappearing and digital ads failing to make up the shortfall. Pay for play content helps, at least a little, bridge that gap. Secondly, with editorial staff shrinking, and those remaining reporters stretched thin across multiple beats, contributed content from brands that is pitched and often written by PRs has helped fill the content void.  It wasn’t going to take long for a publisher’s ad sales team to realize there was an opportunity there.

But sacrificing the meritocracy and editorial decision making involved in accepting a traditional PR pitch has significant ramifications. Instead, with native, that decision may lie in the hands of a publisher’s ad sales team rather than an editor. Plus if a client has to pay an advertising premium for editorial that supports their message, they will most likely expect that message to be more explicit (ahem, promotional) than it would have been in an earned media hit. Both factors amount to less reader-friendly content.

Mutually Assured Disruption

Again, followers of the rise and fall of print advertorial will appreciate that this was always the dilemma.  As readers, we became adept at recognizing advertising features and flipping the page. You probably still do that when reading a print mag.  What will be different about native in digital media if, as many publishers pledge and advertising standards bodies are beginning to mandate, the content is clearly labelled as brand supported or native ad content?

There are probably naturally aligned interests that will help steer native content in the right direction – publishers need readers to find the content valuable, so for the concept to work long term, it has to remain relatively independent and maintain high standards. Advanced abilities to measure engagement will help manage that journey.

Reputable media organizations will always want insight from the private sector and even when the content falls under the native category, the publication is going to expect it to be a story that captures their audience’s attention and engagement. PR professionals should take heart that we specialize as storytellers in helping organizations to shape their marketing messages into wider trends and interesting storylines that fit the editorial agenda of media.  Which marketing discipline is more adept at that work? This is the formula not just for successful earned media, but also for native advertising content as well. Our focus as PR pros will remain on building storylines that have editorial merit in their own right, but we will also need to recognize when promotion of content, via native or social, can truly enhance campaigns.

Dominic Weeks
Vice President


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