Did we just see the backlash against native advertising – perhaps against content marketing more generally – begin?
Collective Content often complains that no one calls out all those bad examples of content marketing. We say this as a content marketing agency because bad work doesn’t help anyone and a culture of mutual backslapping isn’t as constructive as it feels.
It’s not that there haven’t been critics of content marketing in the last year or two – and before that, if we realise it’s existed for a century under different names.
But last week saw several strong pieces, not just saying there are bad apples but that the whole category is contaminated.
First we came across Native Advertising Is Bad News by Mediassociates’ Ben Kunz (@benkunz) writing in Digiday.
Check out the post. Among Kunz’s assertions are that native ads are a “more insidious encroachment into consumer media content than any prior form of advertising”. He’s particularly concerned that publishers and the agencies and brands they work with are trying to hoodwink consumers of the content.
We have always said brand content should be labelled as such, unless it’s bleeding obvious.
Though we’re not sure Kunz has a point when he adds: “Even when the source is disclosed, the attempt of the content to look native confuses readers.”
Really? Increasingly we’ve found audiences value good content, whoever produces it. They’re more confused that anybody would put out poor content.
But do read the rest of what Kunz says. His warnings for publishers – some of whom are big adopters of native ads but still produce strong journalism, in fact one helps fund the other – are chilling.
Also powerful from last week was Robert X Cringely’s (@cringely) Here lies Web journalism, dead at the hand of the almighty advertiser in InfoWorld (link no longer available).
Some of his arguments are similar to Kunz’s. They’re about “online ads masquerading as editorial” and his accounts of free contributions to major sites – some ghost-written by agencies, some from bloggers – actually being funded by undisclosed advertisers are worrying. “Sites with some remaining shred of ethics usually remove them,” he notes.
Both commentators bring up the botched episode with a Church of Scientology piece over at the Atlantic – a publication that is often a shining light of ‘how it should be done’, which is perhaps one reason why everyone reaches for that example. They also speak strongly about integrity and separation of church and state.
The implication is that with native advertising and content marketing more generally you can’t have those things.
Those who stand up to such criticism usually take several lines.
For brands that spend their marketing monies it isn’t such a big issue. Media is nowadays only one of several ways for them to get across their message. The billions that a P&G spends annually on marketing eclipses the revenue at some of the largest media companies. This is sacrilege where I come from but the marketing world is bigger than media.
Next, publishers will generally seek to do native advertising well. They haven’t, by and large, rushed in. (We see this first hand.) They talk about creating processes, separation from their traditional teams of journalists, clear labelling and so on.
And there’s another angle. Some will answer simply “What’s the alternative?”
For one thing, media models have been dying for a decade or more. This isn’t only about the advent of digital publishing – the classic exchanging analogue pounds for digital pennies. Even those digital pennies have become harder to come by.
The last few years have seen CPMs, the rates media owners get for ads, decrease for a number of reasons. Trends such as mobile ads and sophisticated ad tech usually accelerate this. (And is it even in the booming ad tech industry’s interest to see an alternative to display ads start to gain traction?)
And secondly, how effective is online display advertising? Engagement (usually roughly measured by the CTR or click-through rate) is commonly around 0.20% or worse. Imagine you spoke to a group of 10,000 people and only 20 people spoke back.
By doing things exactly the way they’ve been done for many years there is an elite in publishing that will still do well. And there are plenty of media chop shops that the world wouldn’t miss. But inbetween the 1 per cent and the truly awful are hundreds of major, quality brands whose journalism can’t currently pay its own pay.
Publishers need to be embracing native ads and content marketing more generally. If they don’t, their advertisers will only do it elsewhere, through social media or their owned media.