The right way to do native advertising

Native advertising can be a dirty word in the news room. Let’s face it, the term is a euphemism for what’s really happening. A better description might be “advertising that looks like news content in order to trick the reader.” Advertisers and sales departments like native ads because, since they look like news content, viewers are less likely to skip over them they way they do banner ads. Newsrooms don’t like them because they may confuse viewers as to what is news content and what is paid content. Another issue with local native ads is that they could confuse the expectations of local businesses. Imagine a business reporter approaching a local shop for an article. The shop owner has in the past paid for a native ad, and now wonders why he doesn’t get to dictate the content of the news article.

Gimlet Media, a podcasting company founded by Alex Blumberg, formerly of Planet Money and This American Life, has taken what I think is a novel approach to native advertising in their podcasts Startup and Reply All. Think radio live reads done as narrative journalism. At the 11:50 mark of the above episode, Startup co-host Lisa Chow narrates a sponsor message from Ford. Instead of just reading copy supplied by the sponsor, Chow does what amounts to a one-minute audio story about Ford’s engineers wearing special suits that simulate what it’s like to be elderly so they can improve the design of their cars. She interviews an engineer and makes a point about human empathy. All sponsor messages done over a specific music bed that they use to differentiate ads from editorial content, and they are always introduced as a word from our sponsor so their is no confusion as to what is journalism and what is advertising. I usually fast-forward through ads on podcasts, but I find myself listening to most of Gimlet’s ads. My favorites are when Reply All co-hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt frame their sponsor messages through a long-running dispute about when one is going to visit the other’s newborn baby. Storytelling and personality are at the forefront of these spots, and you sometimes forget that they are advertisements. The other masters of podcast native ads are How To Do Everything‘s Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag. They bring in unrelated experts as an elaborate setup for what turns out to be a bad pun (so bad it’s good). They recently did a phone interview with an Olympic swimmer and asked her if being in the pool with everybody in the their swim trunks was like being in some kind of trunks club. Get it? Trunk Club?

This is not to say that there are no problems with these native ads. Startup devoted an entire episode to a mistake with a native ad for Squarespace. The problem was not in the presentation of the ad, but in the way it was presented to the subject of the ad. The ad included an interview with a young boy who used Squarespace to make a website about Minecraft. The producer who approached the boy’s mother made it sound like he was being interviewed for a story on This American Life, not an ad that would appear in a podcast. This underscores the problem I pointed out in the beginning of this post: native advertising needs to be transparent in the same way that all journalistic reporting is. The difference between editorial and advertising content need to be 100% clear, and you risk blurring that line when a journalist is the one producing the advertisement.

Gimlet learned their lesson and have continued to produce compelling shows and interesting sponsor messages. It works because of the new media nature of their business. I don’t see yet how a newspaper could adopt this style of native advertising, because it would be too hard to prevent conflicts of interest when you  have a reporter for a local paper writing an ad about a local company. As long as Gimlet doesn’t start presenting editorial stories about Ford and Squarespace, they should be free of any conflicts. As traditional news organizations try to find their way on the web, it would be worth investigating how they could adapt this model, particularly in video. For many local advertisers, the cost of producing a video ad is more than the cost of purchasing the pre-roll spot. News organizations should consider having a videojournalist who can quickly and inexpensively produce a short ad that mirrors the storytelling style of their editorial content, even if that person works in another department outside the newsroom.

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