I love John Oliver’s new show. It’s witty, funny, well-written and always on relevant topics. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to see him taking a punch at native advertising.
If you don’t have time to watch his 11-minute segment, his argument is this: native advertising is ultimately deceptive and undermines the journalistic values that are essential to a free press. Why? As Oliver cites in the video, consumers rarely recognize when content on a publication’s website is “native ad” or not.
That’s very fair. Especially if you’re familiar with the The Atlantic’s Scientology fiasco, which Oliver mentions. But before we tie the phrase “native advertising” to a stake and burn it, I implore you to take a moment (as a brand, agency, journalist or consumer) to realize that native ads don’t have to be horrible farces to the public. They can be helpful, if they’re done right.
By done right, I mean this:
1. If you publish content for a brand, create something that actually matters and is relevant to that brand.
Truth is, behind every company is a group of real, often smart, people who care deeply about their products. Even though advertisers and their agencies (I’ll raise my hand here) have a goal to sell products or services, many work to sell things that they believe in. Companies spend millions of dollars testing their products and researching their industry. If brands are going to act as publishers, they should stick to topics relating to their area of expertise. Like Dell talking about work habits or a clothing company rounding up the latest fashion trends. Even though Swiffer’s Buzzfeed list offers more laughs than value, it talks about a relevant topic: cleaning. (And fits nicely on Buzzfeed, which offers more laughs than value too.)
2. Publish first in a designated space for branded content, such as a branded blog.
Many very successful brands are finding success publishing on their own website — often via a branded blog. Two of my favorites, West Elm’s Front + Main and Tory Burch, not only publish relevant content often, they offer sage advice from industry experts that’s actually helpful. If Tory Burch wants to share dinner party appropriate attire or West Elm offers essential tips for an attic renovation — by all means. They also do a great job of distributing that content with fans via social media and email. Do this regularly and consumers will come back to engage.
3. Give a branded representative the byline.
If your brand is writing a piece, give that article or piece of content an actual byline. Meaning an article about “10 ways to accessorize your spring wardrobe” from a clothing company could (and really should) features a small byline, like “Written by Jane Smith, Clothing Co. Brand Manager.” This gives brands a face, which builds credibility and trust with customers. If real company employees can’t create content, at least cite their input with a byline like, “Written by Joshua Meade with contributor Jane Smith.”
Example below from New York Times:
4. Think of native ads like food. Always, always check the label.
If your brand chooses to publish a piece in a traditionally non-branded space (such as in a magazine or newspaper), make sure the publication clearly labels it as “sponsored content.” Label it in an extremely bold way, with a readable label and visual indicator like a color change. If that branded article is interesting and valuable enough, consumers will read it anyway. Being honest and transparent about branded content ensures credibility and trust, not just for the publication but also for the brand itself.