Casual team during meeting
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In the news media context, native advertising refers to content that is produced by staff at a publication in partnership with an advertising client, rather than the client supplying the content - it could be an article, video, podcast or something else. The result, when done well, is content that fits seamlessly into the user experience, matching the tone and style of the publication.

"It’s a triple win: the reader gets something of value, the brand gets exposure, and the publisher gets money, sure, but they are also getting content," explains Justin Cremer, an editor at the Native Advertising Institute.

Utility and authenticity

It is easy to see the appeal to brands, who can "piggyback" on the publication's credibility and reach their audience.

Publishers have a more difficult line to tread, making sure they only lend this credibility to brands and stories that will actually bring value to their readers.

READ ALSO: Building trust can help your newsroom become more sustainable

"The question to ask is 'is there any chance we would have covered this anyway, as an editorial story?' If not, then it's probably not a good fit," says Cremer.

Whether that is because it is not a suitable story for your particular audience, there are ethical concerns such as ‘greenwashing’, or it is simply not that interesting - if you would not ordinarily put it in front of your audience, it is generally not a good idea to do it as a native story either.

Publishers may need to refine the ideas pitched by clients, using their own expertise in what works for their audience.

"You are not selling a brand message, you are selling something useful," says Paul Herman, managing editor at Adspace Studio Media24 where he produces native content for News24, South Africa's largest digital news publisher, following a former role as news editor.

Herman defines 'classic native' as a story which is not directly related to the product itself.

This means that an article about a particular airline's new fleet of planes would fall into the 'advertorial' category, but a native advertising story for that client might be a series of city guides to destinations they fly to, or tips for travelling long-haul with advice from their cabin crew. And unless your audience is made up of aerospace enthusiasts, there is a good chance the second option will have greater appeal.

A recent campaign Herman's studio worked on, Behind the Business Headlines, included ten articles and five podcast episodes created in partnership with a banking client. These articles covered business stories and trends which were not directly related to the client, but some of the quotes came from experts from the banking client.

Another series focused on human interest content, celebrating frontline healthcare workers and inviting readers to nominate and vote for pharmacists who went above and beyond. Videos showing communities coming together to support these healthcare workers resonated with News24's audience, Herman says.

The golden rule of paid-for content is that it must be clearly labelled as such - at News24 this is done in the headline, the byline, and again at the end of the article as well as in social media posts, to minimise the chance of a reader feeling duped. If the partnership is clearly signposted, it is less likely to detract from the user's experience.

This is especially true when it comes to younger audiences, the vast majority of whom say they prefer native advertising to traditional ads.

Herman goes a step further and says that not only can native advertising avoid damaging trust with readers, but it can actually help build trust, because the content is communicated in a more authentic way, and designed to give readers value in a way that banner ads do not. Publishers have much greater control over native content than programmatic or display advertising, so it is easier to ensure it fits smoothly into readers' experience and that it does not contain any objectionable content.

"We have found that our readers don't mind if a story is a partner story, as long as it is a good story."

Measuring success

Parameters for success should be defined with the client beforehand, and these will be based on their own goals, whether that is generating sales leads (which could be measured through click-through rate to their website) or brand awareness (measured in pageviews and/or time on page or scroll depth).

Impact on brand perception and reputation is more complicated to measure, but some clients or larger publishers are able to survey readers or use tools to measure emptional response to the content; otherwise, engagement rate or reviews of social media comments could be used as an indicator.

At News24, most campaigns are measured in engagement level, with benchmarks usually relating to pageviews, time on page and click-through rate.

The banking series, for example, received over quarter of a million pageviews, average time on page more than three times higher than the benchmark, and a high number of clicks through to the client's website.

Who can do native?

Major news brands have the budget and resources to create impressive content and can pitch clients on the basis of their wide reach, but smaller organisations should not feel that this revenue stream is out of their reach. Small publishers with a niche engaged audience can succeed by partnering with companies that want to appeal to that audience.

International Media Support has a range of case studies of successful native advertising strategies in smaller newsrooms across Central and Eastern Europe, even breaking down the team structure at some of the content studios to show what a working model might look like.

The key to success is to build on what you already do well. Whether that is reaching a specific valuable audience, creating visually beautiful stories, succeeding in the podcast space, or something else - this is what you sell to your clients.

As for who should create the content within an organisation, standard practice is to keep editorial and commercial teams separate. Herman explains that they can still learn from each other, for example by sharing tips on visualisation tools or insights into best practice on form and presentation, but the separation allows each team to get on with their work and reduces the risk of potential ethical issues.

If you are a journalist looking for a career change into native advertising or commercial content, Herman says the biggest difference between the two teams is that native advertising involves a lot of collaborative work, compared to the focus on working independently as a news journalist.

"You are partnering with a client, and they usually want to be involved in the process, so you need to be open to collaboration and feedback, satisfy your own needs and sensibilities as a journalist but also those of your client," he says.

Three trends to look out for

When it comes to the future of native advertising, Cremer says we can expect a continued increase in both the demand from clients as well as the quality offered by commercial teams. Here are three trends he and Herman highlighted:

  • Interactive: Because brands are looking for engagement, interactive formats have a high appeal: Cremer cites a New York Times article, Women Inmates, written as part of a partnership with Netflix for the launch of Orange is the New Black, as one of the best examples of native advertising, and this was a long-read with plenty of interactive imagery to grab the reader's attention. Herman's team sometimes runs votes or competitions for partners which readers can enter as part of content partnerships, another way to build up engagement.

  • Audio and video: With audio articles on the rise and data showing that the medium works especially well for building trust and habit with younger readers, expect to see more clients hoping to take advantage of the personal element of this medium. That might mean episodes of a podcast created together with a partner, or a 'native' segment of a podcast, woven into the episode more seamlessly than reading out ads directly as a 'a word from our sponsor'.

  • New platforms: Herman's team is looking at TikTok; Cremer is curious about the opportunities for native advertising in the metaverse. Just as editorial teams need to follow changing news consumption habits, native advertising follows editorial trends.

READ ALSO: Listeners pay more attention to ads on podcasts


The Native Advertising Playbook by International Media Support and CityDog Media (with a focus on Central and Eastern Europe)

The Native Advertising Blog by the Native Advertising Institute

Guide to Native Advertising by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism

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