Doing Sponsored Content Badly: 'Native Advertising' Isn't Native If It Sucks

from the not-how-to-do-it dept

There's been an uproar about The Atlantic's decision yesterday to run sponsored content from Scientology, which consisted of a pretty poorly done advertorial about Scientology's "successes" in the past year. The comments on the piece included a bunch of "wow this is just awesome!" type comments that suggest both moderation and pre-planned comments from supporters. After widespread outcry about The Atlantic going in such a direction, the piece was pulled. Recently, there's also been similar (though slightly different) "sponsored" posts on Buzzfeed, in which staff plaster some company's name over a "top 10" or "top 15" list that they slap together -- often by pulling images from other sources (Reddit is a popular one), without making much effort to credit whoever came up with the content. There's even been a fair bit of controversy over the Associated Press' recent decision to allow sponsored tweets from Samsung during CES.

All of these seem like examples of doing "sponsored content" badly -- just as more and more publications are getting into sponsored content. While it's good to see publications taking some risks and trying something new, the downside is that it has the potential to completely scare off companies from doing any forms of sponsored content, even when it can be done much better. For many, many years, we've talked about how how content is advertising and advertising is content, and those who get it right are going to go far. The problem is that it's tough to get right -- often because the marketers themselves are so focused on old school "advertising" in which they have to keep pushing their message and their message alone, they miss out on the fact that this backfires in a big bad way every single time.

There's been a lot of talk lately about "native advertising" -- which is the buzzphrase around this kind of content these days. Many point out that "advertorial" is nothing new, and that's accurate, but true native content is something different. For years, when we've talked about these concepts, everyone has complained about said "advertorial", suggesting that it's annoying or misleading -- and that's been the problem with the examples above. But, when done right, it doesn't need to be either annoying or misleading. And we need to get to that point. Five years ago we put forth some basic concepts for why the world needed to move towards this model, and I still think they hold true today:
  1. The captive audience is dead. There is no captive audience online. Everyone surfing the web has billions of choices on what they can be viewing, and they don't want to be viewing intrusive and annoying ads. They'll either ignore them, block them or go elsewhere.
  2. Advertising is content. You can't think of ads as separate things any more. Without a captive audience, there's no such thing as "advertising" any more. It's just content. And it needs to be good/interesting/relevant content if you want to get anyone to pay attention to it.
  3. Content is advertising. Might sound like a repeat of the point above, and in some ways it is -- but it's highlighting the flip side. Any content is advertising. It's advertising something. Techdirt content "advertises" our business even if you don't realize it. Every bit of content advertises something, whether on purpose or not.
  4. Content needs to be useful/engaging/interesting. This simply ties all of that together. If you want anyone to pay attention to your content (which is advertising something, whether on purpose or not) it needs to be compelling and engaging.
The problem is that many marketers (and many publications) seem to really miss out on that last point. The content -- whether it's advertising, native content, advertorial or whatever -- needs to be useful/engaging/interesting. The Scientology advertorial and the AP sponsored tweets really fell down on that point. The Buzzfeed content at least got much of that aspect correct, but fell down on the kinds of things that often piss people off: poorly attributed copied content. There's no reason why Buzzfeed couldn't have done such a collection with proper attribution and most of the controversy would have been avoided.

And that's the real point here: it is possible to do "sponsored content" in a compelling way. I still like to point to the example that we did a few years back with UPS sponsoring us to do some videos about the topics we already talk about, leading to things like the following video about the economics of abundance:
When we posted that we were actually surprised (but thrilled) to find out that many in our community were happy to see projects like that move forward. That was because it was about creating useful and engaging content that wasn't misleading or just pure propaganda.

The world will get there eventually, but it's an ongoing struggle to get both publications and marketers to realize that "native advertising" isn't native if the content sucks and no one wants to see it (especially if it's pure propaganda, or otherwise enrages people). Some continue to insist that any and all such sponsored content is, by definition, problematic, but I don't think it needs to be. It's just that we need to get people in marketing firms and at publications to move past such a view of native advertising. The Atlantic should have known ahead of time how people would react. Buzzfeed should have made sure its content didn't set off a firestorm. And the companies paying for such ads should also learn that if they're just creating annoying content, it's not helping anyone, least of all themselves.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Lowestofthekeys (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 11:59am

    I think social media content is a huge victim of terrible non-engaging content.

    For example, a company I've worked with in the past was always trying to sell themselves via Youtube and Facebook. Whenever I suggested creating relevant material for status updates, videos or blog content instead of material highlighting the company, they would ask me "Well..will that attract clients?".

    I never gave them a response, but that's because they wouldn't want to hear that nobody wants to spend the time watching a video about a company they've never heard of.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Arfnotz, Jan 15th, 2013 @ 11:59am

    native advertising

    and they don't want to be viewing intrusive and annoying ads. They'll either ignore them, block them or go elsewhere.

    Like those little pesky pop ups at the bottom of your page. Think about removing them, they are annoying.

    Otherwise, a well constucted argument I agree with .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    weneedhelp (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 12:11pm

    pop ups at the bottom of your page

    You can turn them off ya know? Its been so long I forgot how to do it. Anyone?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Marc Headley (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 12:19pm

    Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet

    As someone who worked for Scientology for 15 years and saw Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology and escaped with the help of law enforcement, I am appalled that The Atlantic would accept money from Scientology for them to push their blatant lies masked as an “ADvertorial”.

    Scientology is the fastest shrinking cult in the world. They have been scooping up real estate and that is their definition of “expansion”. In actual fact, they are losing more members than in their entire 50 year history of scamming people.

    When I left in 2005, their members statistics had been going down fast and steady since 1996.

    Now that more and more media outlets are not afraid of exposing the scam that is scientology, they are having a very hard time getting new “raw meat” through the door and out with their credit cards.

    This Atlantic flap should serve as a lesson to other media outlets. Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet. Stay away – far away. Their money is not worth the trouble.

    Marc Headley
    15 Year Scientology International Headquarters Employee

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 12:43pm

    Re: Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet

    Yes, Scientology is a blatant scam and the Atlantic's willingness to help them rip people off is a compelling reason to stop reading The Atlantic -- regardless of whethor or not their ads are well done.

    However, when I read this: "Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet" my first thought was "when did Scientology become the universal, exaggerated boogyman used to scare people into submission?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jan 15th, 2013 @ 1:31pm

    So, sucky adverts are in flash?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    That One Guy (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 2:15pm

    Re: pop ups at the bottom of your page

    1. Click on 'Account' in the upper-right of the page.
    2. Scroll down to 'My preferences'.
    3. Look for 'Bottom toolbar' and click 'Disabled'.
    4. Profit! and/or no more annoying toolbar at the bottom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    ltlw0lf (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 3:02pm

    Re: Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet

    As someone who worked for Scientology for 15 years and saw Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology

    Loved your book, Mark. Thanks. Scary to see that such an organization still exists in our modern society, unfettered by laws that should prohibit them from operating. Who cares if it is a religion, forced slavery and human trafficking should not be allowed in our society. Happy to have you on the outside.

    This Atlantic flap should serve as a lesson to other media outlets.

    I don't have a problem with Scientology or anyone else buying air time to flog their overly expensive and worthless wares, so long as it is labelled by the publisher as an advertorial or the publisher takes the hit when the lawsuits start for failure to live up to their promises. The beauty of freedom of speech is the freedom to shoot yourself in the isn't that people can say what everyone else agrees with, but that people can make an idiot of themselves.

    My problem is that they buy airtime to flog their wares, and then sue or silence those like you who speak out against them and their atrocities. Let them show their crap...those of us who know better will laugh/cry, and those who don't will hopefully use a search engine to find out more. I don't like them or what they have to say, but I'll defend their right to say it, if need be, just as I'll defend your right to show them for who they really are.

    Oh I am an SP.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Frankz (profile), Jan 15th, 2013 @ 8:08pm

    the "ad" has been pulled

    The Atlantic has pulled the "Advertorial" and suspended the ad campaign, and apologized for it.
    In their own words, "We screwed up." onsored_content_after_outcry.html

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    nasch (profile), Jan 16th, 2013 @ 8:22am

    The Hire

    BMW did a great job of this with their short film series The Hire:

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    ltlw0lf (profile), Jan 16th, 2013 @ 11:34am

    Re: The Hire

    BMW did a great job of this with their short film series The Hire

    I thought Ok-Go/Chevy did pretty good with their Needing/Getting Chevy Sonic commercial. Ok-Go has been doing pretty good with their sponsors lately. Produce a free blow-out music video.

    Of course, Twister (Movie) was probably the best advertising for the Red Dodge Ram Grandmother (who grew up and spent all her life in the Tornado Alley) left the movie theater saying she wanted that indestructible truck.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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