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Native advertising – what does it mean for PR?

November 3, 2015

by Doug Shields

Much has been written about Associated Newspapers’ deal with WPP and Snapchat – and its potential impact on the PR industry as we know it.

I have read more than my fair share of the articles written about it over the last year or so. They range from this one by Arik Hanson on Ragan which hails the almost certain death of PR and at the hands of evil native ads – to this one which says the complete opposite.

As a former journalist who worked on publications in the UK and the U.S I saw first-hand how ad revenue fell and page counts were cut as social media, citizen journalism and that Mark Zuckerberg bloke changed the way we consume news. I witnessed huge news organisations frantically trying to steer their tankers away from the land of high volume, low revenue ads to calmer waters of quick and easy banners ads and click through links.

So the creation of the ultimate advertising axis and their intention to revolutionise ads within pages of online news publications using the native model fascinates me.

Our background in journalism enables us @GingerComms to analyse where PR campaigns which require national coverage stand in the midst of the native revolution.

Recently MailOnline have posted fewer PR-led news articles than they once did. The Femail page is shorter, with links to blogs now occupying up space which was once there for the taking, as far as PRs were concerned.

So is this a consequence of a new native advertising strategy? It could well be. But I will be interested to see how in the UK this unfolds.

People prefer articles to ads. Fact. At 60k plus an article, a price which has been rumoured to be the starting point, it’s surely only going to be the domain of the biggest brands.

End users will have very little editorial control, having been advised ‘this is not an advertorial’. Of course the bigger online news platforms can guarantee views, but as many in the PR industry have always said ‘You can lead a horse to water …’

I can see the appeal for huge brands with money to burn … but are clients with smaller budgets going to be up for it? We’ll have to wait and see.

Personally, I would go as far as to say some of the native advertising I have seen on news sites recently has not been great. Poorly written, possibly by young web-savvy, but news-naïve writers, who wouldn’t know a story if it bit them on the back-side.

But a few have impressed me. In particular I liked this one, which coincided with the release of Netflix series Orange Is The New Black.

Where the lines start to blur and where I believe my unique perspective becomes relevant is that savvy brands will still use more subtle, and significantly cheaper PR stories to deliver their key messaging.

For example will online news platforms still run sponsored surveys while the online news desks turn their noses up at them? At the moment it seems they will.

So when is a PR story not a PR story?

For example one which we did recently about the lady who tastes the chocolate Easter eggs at Marks and Spencer, in our opinion, qualifies as news, particularly because of the details – like she runs 5k to keep off the pounds piled on by scoffing all that chocolate.

If ads teams start to dictate what makes papers and online sites, the whole ethos of news itself will begin to crumble.

I am also aware how much control PR clients want over the content before it is delivered to the national media.

Some projects can be yanked back and forth between client, agency and GingerComms for weeks, months even.

Are a team of young ad execs, or young writers going to have the expertise to deal with pushy clients? I doubt it.

And as far as I am concerned newspapers and online sites need a nice, edible mixture of hard news and ‘soft news’. It can’t all be death, destruction and misery.

If this was the case no-one would ever read papers – and they still do. In some countries print is making a comeback now.

Perhaps we have bitten off more Apple than we can chew.

Savy journalists know the best way to deliver great coverage on behalf of a brand is via the people behind the brand – or the people who engage with customers every day.

Unfortunately for the advertising departments, people will always want to read about people.

Reading about brands can be boring – unless its VW or FIFA – but even then the human stories which emerge from PR disasters such as the ones experienced by these two corporate giants, are intriguing.

Admittedly in these cases both were massively negative stories. But positive stories emerge from stories about brands and businesses too. And for me that avenue will always remain open.

Another interesting element that must be taken into account when looking at the impact native ads may have on news PR is that no-one likes being sold to.

I’m a consumer. I blog, I have been on Twitter long enough to know my way around, and I have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile. I also know when I am being sold to. I believe people don’t want to have sponsored full-page articles thrust in front of their faces. I just can’t believe anyone reads that type of content to the end. I certainly don’t.

I believe people are generally wise to this type of hard sell.

And remember it’s been proven people generally take little notice of adverts.

As W Communications Warren Johnson recently pointed out in this post a recent study by The Guardian discovered that, astoundingly, of the more than 3,500 advertising messages directed at Londoners during the average working day, the number retained by each individual was close to zero.

For me, well thought-out PR campaigns will always outlive the short, sharp style of ads.

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