Native advertising ‘incredibly controversial’, admits Forbes executive

forbes_1200x1200Native advertising that is not clearly labelled risks destroying the long-held trust between reader and brand and amounts to nothing more than prostitution, media experts have warned.

A panel discussion at the Association of Data Driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) conference heard yesterday that branded content can only work if it is made clear to the consumer that what they are reading or watching is not independent.

Forbes Media has embraced the native advertising model, and chief insights officer Bruce Rogers acknowledged that it was highly contentious when the company began to carry branded content.

“We knew it would be incredibly controversial and we were very careful,” he told delegates. “We picked our partners and our editors are not producing content, unlike other organisations. A marketing team assists in creating content. It was very important to introduce it in the right way because we knew it could make or break it if we did it wrong.”

Pulling the wool over readers’ eyes would be a high-risk strategy and “denigrate the brand”, he said, “and that would be insanity”.

The way Forbes has introduced such content – which is labelled ‘Brand Voice’ and which Rogers described as ‘brand journalism’ – strengthens its content offering, he said.

“Native Advertising  is what Outbrain does, snippets and headlines at the bottom of the page with a provocative headline and provocative picture. Brand journalism is more about a meritocracy of voices that marketers have information that is valuable, and in some cases more valuable than even editors have.

“If we put marketers’ content on the same platform that our editors use we clearly identify it and label it as coming from a marketer. We think we are providing a service to both the reader and to the marketer. I don’t think it’s a blurring of the line. It’s a strengthening of the line between church and state.”

US journalist Bob Garfield, a long time critic of branded content, agreed that Forbes’s approach should be applauded. But he said too many organisations attempt to con and deceive the reader.

“I believe that someone like an IBM has a lot to say about technology….and they should be really proud to put their name on it and not come to a masquerade ball as something else,” he said.

Publishers meanwhile should understand their brands are sacrosanct and “should not rent their virtue out to the highest bidder”.

“There is a name for that,” he said.

Garfield also asked delegates if they saw a clear distinction between the Outbrain links that send readers “down a rabbit hole of crap content and the brand voice that Forbes does”.

SBS chief content officer Helen Kellie said the network does create branded content but it up front with the viewer. She said partnerships with brands can generate positive outcomes for SBS, the brand and the viewer.

“In the food space we do branded content very successfully,” she said. “It allows us to bring content to audiences that we could not afford to make without a brand partner to make it with us. We have to make sure the quality is good and we are always in control. We are really clear it is branded content.”

Kellie insisted that SBS was “not throwing its brand down the swanny” but strengthening its brands through associations with leading brands in their field.

“The most important thing is our credibility and our reputation. Fooling the audience is not a long term strategy for a strong media brand.

“It’s important to make sure you don’t break that bond with the audience. You have to be clear what it is. You can’t pretend it’s something that it isn’t. It can be done in a subtle way but you need to be explicit about it.”

Steve Jones


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