Blog: Is Brand-Commissioned Journalism Less Valuable?



October 27, 2014

In late June, eBay partnered with The Huffington Post to post an article titled “What To Wear At These 6 Unconventional Weddings.” You may have stumbled upon this article from a keyword search or browsing the HuffPo Style section. But I’m sure if you saw it, you didn’t expect to be reading an ad.

The campaign, which ran from June 28-30, produced a click through rate for the eBay products cited in the article of 7.5%, which is quite high. This instance of paid journalism seemed to pair nicely with the accompanying banner ads to drive traffic to Banner ads are clearly familiar as a digital advertising medium. But what about the impact of the sponsored article itself? And why did this combination seem to work?

In the formerly bifurcated world of advertising versus PR, we are familiar with “paid” vs. “earned” media. Many are saying native advertising, such as the eBay sponsored article mentioned above, is causing a collision between the two. Some are even calling it abattle of industries. However, I stand by those who see native advertising as a tool in the toolboxes of both advertising and PR– just as eBay paired its native advertising with banner ads.

Earned media placements often include experts quoted, studies / statistics cited or news announced. PR provides the information, assets, insights and spokespeople for editorial media to include in its stories; whereas advertising buys the quarter-page space next to the story.

Native advertising, by definition, falls into the category of a “paid” medium. It is an evolution of the standard advertisement (though not dissimilar in approach and format to what has been known for years as “advertorials”). Native advertising can replace a static advertisement (for instance, an Express ad depicting girls out in the city) with something more meaningful, like this article about dressing up an interview outfit. Both approaches have a motive to connect you, the consumer, with the brand or company that commissioned the work.

Netflix also incorporated native advertising into a traditional marketing program. In addition to taking over billboards in Union Square and running a food truck, Netflix commissioned the New York Times to do an investigative report on the state of women’s prisons – written by a legitimate journalist who fully engaged in an intriguing and important topic. This piece was backed by hours of exploratory research, impressive data points and quotes collected from prisoners firsthand. It was an authentic piece of editorial content, but sparked by a paying customer.

And let’s look at what newer online channels like Buzzfeed are doing. BuzzFeed has been avant-garde in the market today by producing easily shared content. The news they are creating is both “traditional” and “branded” in nature. BuzzFeed not only pushes out its traditional editorial content, but it also drives branded content to it users. Allstate Insurance, for example, opted to create a native advertising BuzzFeed list of things every committed couple needs to do, instead of leveraging a pop-up ad featuring Dennis Haysbert’s latest monologue. CK client Coldwell Banker shared a list of fairy tale dreams homes that would make any one live happily ever after. Instead of glazing over a tired list in the classifieds, Coldwell Banker’s amusing article made me click my heels three times and wish I was swimming in #17.

All of this raises a question: does having a journalistic piece backed by a brand make this tactic wrong or deceiving?

The industry doesn’t seem to think so. Native advertising is expected to grow 40 percent in the next year. Furthermore, a study of millennials conducted by Concentric Marketing found that 32 percent of millennials want ads to be more entertaining. And that’s what many native ads are attempting to do – create content that is both entertaining and informative.

As a millennial myself, I agree we are not as sensitive to ad placements as the generations before us. Marketers, public relations professionals, advertisers, companies and brands are trying to be entertaining, informative and valuable to you. These communications methods are attempting to connect you with the brand. If executed in the right way – and also as transparently as possible regarding the fact that the content is paid – this approach can be as successful as the classic “earned media” placement.

It’s an exciting time for us as PR professionals to be part of this evolving industry landscape and changing forms of communication and media. Ultimately the companies that will most effectively communicate with the consumer – either through advertising or PR – will be the ones that best connect with the consumer.


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