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Native advertising has been a key trend of 2013, with many publishers keen to benefit from this revenue stream.

Sometimes called sponsored or branded content, it is a form of advertising that moves beyond the advertorial.

"It is content that is created for or provided by a brand or an advertiser that is then surfaced on a publisher's platform," according to Raju Narisetti, senior vice-president and deputy head of strategy at News Corporation.

The Huffington Post, in conjunction with parent company AOL, last month published a report which proposed that native advertising is "sponsored content, which is relevant to the consumer experience, which is not interruptive, and which looks and feels similar to its editorial environment".

Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is by looking at a couple of examples, such as the Guardian's 'what to wear on a date' video, sponsored by John Lewis, with clothes featured in the video from the department store, and BuzzFeed's '20 coolest hybrid animals', created for hybrid car Toyota Prius.

Many publishers see native advertising as a huge opportunity.

"We will participate very aggressively in this space," Narisetti said, referring to News Corp titles the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the company's Australian assets.

"We will go after the revenue, we will go after helping big brands figure out how to do this well, but we will do it with very clear, transparent labelling so there is no confusion in the minds of our audiences," he told us in this podcast on native advertising.

"We are starting to engage big brands and big advertisers with native advertising concepts and ideas, and we are prepared to not only run it but also help them create content," he explained.

Separating church and state

The Wall Street Journal is one of a number of publishers creating content on behalf of brands. But, crucially, it is not a task of newsroom journalists.

There is never any question that a Wall Street Journal newsroom staffer is creating content for a brandRaju Narisetti, News Corp
"We will never have our journalists write that kind of content," Narisetti said. "There is never any question that a Wall Street Journal newsroom staffer is creating content for a brand."

At the Wall Street Journal paid-for content is created by a "custom publishing arm" within the advertising department. It "has a lot of seasoned former journalists who can produce the kind of Wall Street Journal-level quality content that a brand might want", Narisetti explained.

At the Huffington Post UK there is also a clear separation of journalists and those creating branded journalism, a divide between church and state.

"We have a commercial editorial team," explained Carla Buzasi, editor-in-chief, Huffington Post UK in the podcast.

The people in that team "have editorial backgrounds" and therefore "know how to create compelling content", she added.

"It's making sure you have journalists, but that people are separated as such because we want to make sure there are no blurred lines."

An example of content produced by the HuffPost UK team on behalf of a brand, is an award-winning campaign they did for Iceland (the country, not the supermarket).

Buzasi said that a few years ago a publisher would have responded to this by creating a travel section, reviewing hotels and explaining how people can get flights. "But we totally turned it on its head," she said. Huffington Post created an 'inspiration' section and featured inspirational content about fashion and food.

"Mixed in with that there was lots of content about Iceland but it wasn't about 'book your flight here', it included things like an interview with the Mayor of Reykjavik, who used to be a stand-up comedian.

"This is content that anyone would be interested in, not just people thinking about going to Iceland for a holiday," Buzasi added.


Publishers agree that it is essential that readers understand the difference between journalism and sponsored content.

"There must be transparency about that content versus anything else that your newsroom or your journalists are producing," Narisetti said.

And there are many ways to flag this up. The Wall Street Journal has opted for the label 'presented by'; the Huffington Post has gone for 'sponsor generated post'; the Guardian adds 'in association with'; Quartz's choice is 'sponsor content'; and local title On The Wight has selected 'sponsored feature'.

The threats

Native advertising could be a threat to publishers, and already there have been instances which are potentially damaging for a brand, such in the case of The Atlantic publishing a piece of paid-for content on the controversial topic of Scientology.

And a competitive threat may come from the brands themselves, with some launching their own magazines or sites (more on that here) and now vying for readers' attention.

"As brands become better at storytelling, you have to factor in that you have a new competitor in addition to the other publishers you thought you were competing with," warned Narisetti.

This is something that Lewis D'Vorkin, chief product officer for Forbes, mentioned in a recent talk he gave on the media outlet's online content strategy.

"Intel has its own newsroom, Virgin America has a newsroom, advertising agencies have their own newsrooms – and they're hiring journalists," he said at the time.

The opportunities

But some brands trying to create their own content might struggle, suggested Narisetti. "Brands will quickly find out that creating content inexpensively is going to be difficult for them," he said.

Which is where a publisher's expertise comes in. "Compelling storytelling is a craft and has a science to it and it most big publishers have had more than 100 years of experience doing that," Narisetti said.

"I think there is a role for big brands to work with big publishers to figure that out, rather than to think of it as circumventing big media or journalism to get around it.

"There is a lot more opportunity for both in working together rather than seeing this as an either/or issue."

But, as Buzasi said, it requires brands to relinquish editorial control to the professional storytellers.

"It's interesting to work with brands who want to be experimental and are not so worried about controlling a message that has come from on high. It can't just be the CEO's vision, they need to listen to their consumers," she said.

And while some publishers are resistant to native advertising, Narisetti believes it is essential to push forward.

"We don't want to leave this revenue on the table," he said.

Thank you to those people who contributed to this spreadsheet where we have been gathering examples of sponsored content. Please do add other links to native advertising that you come across.

Correction: This article initially suggested that the Financial Times was not pursuing native advertising. It is an area the FT is actively exploring.

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