Even as native ads naysayers argue for clear labeling and design cues so readers don’t confuse them with actual journalism, publishers and advertisers have pushed to make the units look more like editorial.
The latest example comes from The Washington Post. Its native ad program, WP BrandConnect, is adopting the multimedia, longform template that’s been used in the newsroom for features like this one.
Kevin Gentzel, the Post’s chief revenue officer, explained that the quality bar is being raised on native advertising. Brands are creating high-quality video, research and articles, often tailored to a specific publishers’ audience, and they’re looking to publishers to improve the reader appeal.
“We want our BrandConnect partners to be able to take advantage of the gifts that the Internet brings—all of these tools that help the storytelling journey,” Gentzel said. “And they will also be clearly labeled. Labeling and transparency is key to trust.”
Meaning, BrandConnect ads will continue to be labeled “sponsor generated content” and use a different background color and font from the newsroom's.
The first advertiser to use the new BrandConnect is PhRMA, the trade group for the pharma industry. PhRMA will use the format to tout the industry’s investment in high school education and work in fighting diseases. The Post’s sponsored content division advised PhRMA in creating the articles, which will launch March 3.
This isn't the first time the sales side has peeked over the proverbial Chinese wall to get inspiration from the editorial side. The New York Times has done it via its Idea Lab. The Post has an Ad Innovations team that sits in the marketing group but looks for inspiration in the newsroom.
Apparently, the BrandConnect tweaks are just the beginning of what could be a cozier relationship between news and advertising. The Post is offering advertisers the ability to take advantage of its Truth Teller video project, which originally was used to fact-check politicians’ speeches and has since been expanded to trailers of movies based on true stories, like The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave.
It's also embedding technologists with the sales side to speed up the development of complicated ad units.
Gentzel said the push for more collaboration won't compromise the Post’s editorial integrity, though. “I’m homing in on the reader experience, not how stories are being told,” he said. "The credibility and trust of the investigative journalism that occurs in our newsroom is holy. We’re just saying, we can create a better, fulsome experience through design and engineering that includes advertising in an innovative and inventive way.”
In the case of Truth Teller, he said, “There are advertisers that also have a sense of humor that could have fun with this.”
With native ads' limited footprint one of advertisers' main objections, the Post also is looking to distribute BrandConnect more widely. It's looking into audience extension, and it's close to selling a version that will run in the printed newspaper, Gentzel said.
And, they're coming to mobile. The PhRMA campaign will mark the first time BrandConnect ads will start appearing in the news stream on the Post’s mobile site.
Publishers have been slow to migrate their native ads to mobile devices, despite native being seen as the solution to ineffective and poorly paying display advertising on mobiles. Nearly half of the Post’s online traffic comes from mobile devices, but Gentzel said he wanted to make sure the paper's native product was right before expanding it to mobile.
The New York Times, for another, launched a new native ad unit on its desktop site in January, but a rep said it’s not expected to roll out on mobile for another few months.