Native advertising is a demonstrably effective channel for brands that leverages trust in the news organisation’s reputation and voice, but a new report finds that the imbalance in negotiating power between client and publisher is creating a “race to the bottom” that could erode the very trust that those publishers have built up.

Regulation and greater transparency are needed before advertising begins to significantly interfere with news coverage, according to a new study by Ava Sirrah, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University’s School of Journalism – and former NYT Creative Strategist – published in the school’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism.

The report is based on a series of 32 standard interviews with people who work inside publications’ branded content studios ranging from legacy publishers such as the New York Times and The Atlantic to new digital-only outlets like BuzzFeed.

“Today, native advertising is the central digital revenue stream for the publishing industry. It makes up some 60% of the market, or $32.9 billion,” Sirrah writes, citing research from eMarketer.

Church and state lines blur

A crucial revenue stream, the channel has become an imperative for digital publishers, but the report looks in depth at the ethics of “church and state”, the traditional divide between the newsroom and the ad sales department. Four interviewees noted the times when publishers have made the wrong decision.

One cited a 2013 native ad that the Church of Scientology had placed in The Atlantic, in an attempt to pre-empt fallout from a book-length exposé of the Church’s practices, for which the magazine eventually revised and clarified its advertising policy.

Though the discipline of native advertising has become more discerning, it remains – in the words of one former content studio member – a practice that involves “calling in world-class publications to effectively write press releases”.

In discussing the conflicts of interests, Sirrah notes that a key trend emerged: “people who adamantly defended the practice were employed by a publisher during the time I interviewed them. However, those who shared their scepticism about the trend had left the industry.”

Publisher power is limited 

The power of publishers to push back against client demands is severely limited, as competition for ad revenue intensifies; marketers have the upper hand.

“Clients, our interviewees constantly told us, always ask for something that ‘has never been done’. The demand for novelty forces news organizations to pitch campaigns that are closely aligned with what journalists are producing, because other marketing channels can’t offer their clients this association.”

The rise of native is a very recent change that has taken particular shape over the last decade. Partnerships that would have been impossible seven years ago are now becoming standard as the industry matures and clients are able to point to unusual partnerships in the recent past. Few topics are off limits, sources report.

“The power imbalance between means we may be in a race to the bottom when it comes to pushing back on how advertisers can and should work with new outlets,” Sirrah observes.

What can be done?

Native advertising and advertorials are different things: the latter is presented as a piece in a publication written by the advertiser or its representatives; the former comes from within the publication, and with a similar or sometimes indistinguishable voice to the untrained eye.

A 2015 survey by Contently – based on a sample of 509 US adults – found that readers consistently mistake native advertising stories. But the findings are complex: while just under half of the sample felt deceived when they realised an article was sponsored, and around two thirds felt a news site loses credibility when publishing native ads, high quality native sees audiences report higher trust in the sponsoring brand.

For brands, an erosion in the publication’s trust long-term should warn against chasing cheap short-term gains. As WARC Best Practice shows, transparency should be the first priority for brands as well as publishers. Quality is important, both for brands and publishers, and that is an attribute built over the long-term. It’s not worth throwing away. 

Sourced from Columbia Journalism Review, The Atlantic, Contently; additional content by WARC staff