Jul 30, 2013

Native advertising and the equilibrium between the useful and the promoted

You may or may not have heard of ‘native advertising’ yet but chances are you’ve already encountered it, and often¹.

In a recent survey by OPA, just under 75% of US publishers self-report that their sites featured native advertising, with a possibility of that number reaching 90% by year end².

So, what is native advertising³? It is a paid-for placement that appears on a publisher’s site or content stream, its appearance being ‘native’ to its visual surroundings. Along with residing on the publisher’s - not the marketer’s - site, it is designed to be discovered and shared in the same ways as regular content. It is also promoted alongside the site’s editorial content, though identified as ‘sponsored content’ or as created by ‘marketing partners’⁴.

One of the promises of native advertising is that it’ll significantly contain the pestilence of banner ads on the Web. No longer will we have to suffer visually screechy intrusions to our attention, nor will publishers have to sell them for next to nothing.

Native advertising, it is also being touted, could be a saviour for online publishing and lead to a win-all for almost everyone (except, of course, ad agencies who may see their role as intermediaries between marketers and online publishers all but vaporise⁵.)

It is not all smooth sailing, of course. A drumbeat of opposition comes from advocates of old-school journalism, who revere the rigid church-and-state line of separation between editorial and advertising. To them, this is a textbook definition of a slippery slope⁶.

* * *

In Game Theory 101, the choice of driving on the left or the right side of the road is often presented as a coordination problem, one in which both players stand to derive mutual gain (and road safety) by mutually agreeing on one, while remaining indifferent to any specific choice⁷.

But for most of history and up to the 18th century, the choice of which side of the road to ride on was more than just a problem of coordination, it was fundamentally a question of trust.

Which is why almost everyone rode on the left of the road⁸. In case they encountered highwaymen or aggressors on their way, this placed them with their right arms in the best position to defend with sword or knife. (Paradoxically, staying to the left also made it easier to be the attacked as one would be to the ‘right’ side of oncoming traffic.)

The rise of multi-horse carriages changed this dynamic⁹ (with the drivers preferring to stay right), but a papal edict in 1300 firmly established riding on the left as the law of the land¹⁰.

The French Revolution, which sought to rebuild society based on new egalitarian principles, brought an abrupt end to several artefacts and accepted norms of life. One of the casualties was the left of the road custom¹¹.

Napoleon decreed by royal order that this game of mistrust would no longer be enacted on roads in the European continent. His army was instructed to march on the right side of the road as a sign of trust and goodwill¹². This “civilised” practice spread far and wide, though the British and their erstwhile colonies still choose to be left behind¹³.

The church-and-state line of divide between editorial and advertising in the media, likewise, imposed a Napoleonic bargain in the way we navigate the world of news and information.

It was a coordination game, but also much more. We could safely encounter an armada of oncoming information in our daily lives and rarely have reason to mistrust its sources or intent. We stayed to the right, doffed our hats and chose to engage with content or advertising as we desired, with no worry about mistaking one for the other¹⁴.

One consequence of native advertising is a return to a bottom-up pre-Napoleonic state of affairs.

But isn’t this a fatal blow to the idea of journalistic ethics? Won’t we end up swimming in endless torrents of corporate propaganda endlessly repackaged and subverted as editorial content?

Unlikely. As minor league Robin Hoods through the centuries realised, it takes two to play a game of coordination and trust. There are no unilateral decisions.

Our new tripartite pact with journalism and native advertising will definitely not have the crisp starched principles that some of us fondly remember. But there’s no reason to believe it will be any less real, or helpful.

Millions of micro-interactions and negotiations between readers and a daily torrent of news will determine where the equilibrium of this new bargain lies. Far from being a rigid and straight line running only through the organisation charts of media companies, the division of what constitutes the useful and the promoted can and will be made in the marketplace, and by readers.

If you doubt that, welcome to the left side of the road.

References and Notes:
1. High-profile web publishers sporting native advertising include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic (Reuters: And now, a word against our sponsor).
2. eMarketer: How Native Ad Campaigns are shaping up
3. There a wide variety of confusing and overlapping definitions currently in use for the term native advertising, ranging from content marketing, publisher tweets to contextually-relevant non-standard advertising units (eMarketer: How Native Ad Campaigns are shaping up). Felix Salmon of Reuters has a useful matrix that clarifies how to think about distinguishing between many competing terms and definitions (Reuters: The Native Matrix).
4. I have outlined this definition based on pieces written by Felix Salmon (The disruptive potential of native advertising) and Lewis Dvorkin (What’s next for native ads? Controversy gives rise to market realities).
5. Andrew Rice covers Buzzfeed, one of the vocal advocates of native advertising in this piece for NY Mag (Does Buzzfeed know the secret?). He provides a panoramic view of the potential of the innovation along with what the critics make of it. Writing on his Reuters blog, Felix Salmon makes a positive case for its disruptive potential (The disruptive potential of native advertising).
6. Jack Shafer writes, “When Web publishers deliberately blur the visual and textual divide that separates editorial from advertising, as The Atlantic did, they force readers to judge whether a page is news/opinion or a commercial advertisement. But they’re not confused; it’s the publisher and the advertiser who are confused. The publishers and advertisers have polluted their own tradition by erasing the traditional line. Suddenly, it’s completely reasonable for readers to blame controversial news stories directly on advertisers and blame controversial advertisements directly on reporters and editors, because publishers and advertisers have essentially merged operations. Such calamities injure both publisher and advertiser, even already controversial advertisers like Scientology.” (Reuters: And now, a word against our sponsor)
7. “A typical case for a coordination game is choosing the sides of the road upon which to drive, a social standard which can save lives if it is widely adhered to.” (Wikipedia : Coordination Games)
8. “In the past, almost everybody travelled on the left side of the road because that was the most sensible option for feudal, violent societies. Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him. Moreover, it reduced the chance of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people.” (World Standards: Why do some countries drive on the right and others on the left?)
9. “These wagons had no driver's seat; instead the driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team. Since he was sitting on the left, he naturally wanted everybody to pass on the left so he could look down and make sure he kept clear of the oncoming wagon’s wheels. Therefore he kept to the right side of the road.” (World Standards: Why do some countries drive on the right and others on the left?)
10. New Scientist : Left if right on the road
11. New Scientist : Left if right on the road
12. This move by Napoleon has been widely attributed to either the fact that he was left-handed or he was doing the opposite of what Britain, his enemy, did (Wikipedia: Right-and Left Hand Traffic). However, one does not have to attribute idealistic motives to Napoleon to see that ordering his armies to march on the right had a worldwide impact and did improve the trust capital of all involved.
13. A world map of countries driving left of the roads shows how much along British-lines this practice is divided. (World Standards: Why do some countries drive on the right and others on the left?)
14. Jack Shafer writes, “It’s equally important to advertising-supported journalism that the news not be confused with the ads that run nearby, a point Benjamin Franklin made in his advertising manifesto in his 1731 “Apology for Printers.” Franklin held — and most publishers continue to hold — that the controversy raised in news stories is 1) desirable, 2) should not be held against advertisers and 3) that the content of advertisement should not automatically be held against the newspaper publishing them.” (Reuters: And now, a word against our sponsor)
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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