For a while, during the earlier epochs of digital evolution, the future looked rather bleak for writers. Extinction seemed the inevitable consequence of an online marketplace whose users expected to get quality content for free. How could such an arrangement be supported; how could a writer make a living out of that?
As it turned out, things aren’t so bad. Hunger for engaging digital content has only increased as the online world begins to supersede more traditional platforms of entertainment and commerce. Successful organisations are now only too aware that content underpins the relationship they have with their customers; without content there is no relationship. And they are willing to pay good money to keep the relationship sweet.
Not only that, it’s a relationship that can be traded. Advertisers looking to find ways to reach a publisher’s hard-won audience will gladly pay for access to this relationship – and are currently paying more than ever. A record £8.6 billion was splurged on UK digital advertising last year, a jump of 16% on 2014, representing the industry’s fastest growth rate since the economic downturn.
Around 9% of that – some £776 million – was used on content and native advertising, the areas of most value to writers and content designers. It was an increase of 50% on 2014 levels – and the figures don’t even account for money directed towards content marketing, online PR and search engine optimisation.
The UK enjoys the largest per capita digital advertising spend in the world, according to Clare O’Brien of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), who shared her insights at a recent Content, Seriously meetup. A happy alignment of factors, such as the UK’s highly developed creative and advertising services, its mature and ‘compact’ national news and broadcasting industries, and high per capita online consumer spend, make it extremely attractive to digital advertisers.
Predictions about the extinction of writers and other content producers were clearly misplaced. In the race to build audiences and influence opinion, there’s arguably more appreciation for their craft than seemed possible to hope for a decade ago. And given that users expect free content and are generally hostile to display ads, banner ads and pop-ups (more than 1 in 5 online adults currently use ad-blocking software; under the age of 24 it’s almost a half), it’s no wonder that native advertising is taking an increasingly prominent role in marketing strategy.
Native advertising: softly, softly…
Native advertising is far more subtle than the rude sledgehammering of pop-up ads, and when it’s done well it can be just as appealing as the content it sits in. The idea itself is nothing new. Victorian-era companies twigged early that supplying content to gently steer customers towards a primary product, itself often far removed from the subject matter, was a highly effective way of increasing sales.
A much-cited example is the tyre company Michelin, who published their now famous maps, hotel and restaurant guides as a means of encouraging people to travel more by car – and use more tyres. Their marketing material was so popular it eventually became a brand-defining product in its own right. And even in the 1950s, Guinness was using advertorials about oysters to get people to drink more stout.
The principle online is much the same. It’s about camouflaging the main message – ‘buy our product’ – in content that an audience will not reject as bald advertising. Advertisers use promotional material that appears ‘native’ to the standard editorial content that surrounds it, matching it in style and get-up, and making it seem at face value that it’s from the trusted content provider rather than an advertiser.
…but stay honest!
Of course, advertisers are not allowed to pass off adverts as factual editorial or deceive audiences by concealing the commercial arrangement made between an advertiser and publisher. Native advertising is regulated and the UK has one of the strictest regimes in the world, underpinned by the CAP Code (rarely referred to by its full name, the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) and enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Their remit has covered digital advertising since 2011, with sanctions that include pre-vetting of content, adverse publicity, removal of paid-for search advertisements; more serious cases can be sent to Trading Standards or the Information Commissioner’s Office for criminal prosecution. In the US, by contrast, general guidelines on native advertising were only introduced at the end of 2015.
Editorial or advertorial?
Regulatory framework has given birth to a whole new glossary of terms for the different types of content that seek to persuade opinion. Scroll through a digital marketer’s playbook and expect to find mention of content marketing, sponsored content, partner content, native advertising, thought leadership, public relations, marketing copy, paid-for content, promoted listings, advertorials, in-feed ads, and probably another small thesaurus’ worth of related terms and euphemisms.
In such a welter of overlapping and fuzzy terms, it can sometimes be difficult for content producers to be sure that they are stepping on the right side of the regulatory line. After all, content is very often designed to be persuasive or influence behaviour. Does that mean such content is automatically subject to the CAP Code?
The crucial difference between content marketing and native advertising, for instance, is that the latter has been paid for and the message is controlled by an advertiser, promoter or marketer in a commercial arrangement with the publisher. Content designed to boost the publisher’s own position, but not directly connected with the supply or transfer of goods or services in non-paid-for space on a company’s own website – what many call content marketing –does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Code.
Be up front about advertising
Clarity is the core principle behind keeping native advertising on the right side of the Code. If a publisher has been paid to communicate or endorse a brand’s message, then it’s advertising – and if it’s advertising the audience has to know it before they start to consume it.
There are many ways to flag up native advertising – one of the reasons there are so many terms for such content. For instance, it could be labelled as ‘sponsored’, ‘suggested by’, ‘presented by’; we’re all familiar with Facebook’s ‘suggested posts’ and Twitter’s ‘promoted tweets’. It could have a visual cue or demarcation to make the boundary between advertising and editorial content obvious. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, Clare O’Brien of IAB said, but it does have to be clear and up front.
In the end, advertisers are paying for a slice of the trust that you have built up with your audience. Fall foul of the Code and you risk facing the reputational damage of naming and shaming and taking your ads down. If you’re audience feels duped, the trust will go – and that was the very commodity you were trading on in the first place. Get it right and your audience will continue to trust and enjoy your content, and advertisers will continue to pay.
Many thanks to Clare O’Brien for her contribution to the Content, Seriously meetup. Join the next meetup: www.meetup.com/Content-Seriously-for-London-Content-Professionals/