With Redesign, NYTimes.com Unveils Native Ad Platform

'Paid for' labeling throughout

The New York Times recently detailed plans to introduce a native advertising product to its website, and on Wednesday, readers will get to see its first appearance.

Dell is the charter advertiser of the new ad platform, which will be part of an overhaul of NYTimes.com launching that day.

The Times has been tentative about embracing the ad format, which has lately been embraced by other online publishers but is controversial because of its resemblance to, and risk of confusion with, editorial content. (Times executive editor Jill Abramson herself has expressed reservations about the format, and the FTC has been examining the subject.) How the paper uses it will no doubt be widely scrutinized by media watchers.

That made Dell a safe choice to kick off the new format. It's experienced at using the format, has its own newsroom, and has used established journalists to write its content.

"We wanted to start with someone who we thought really understood how to be a great storyteller," said Meredith Kopit Levien, evp of advertising for the Times. "And [Dell global communications managing editor] Stephanie Losee was [a writer] at Fortune. She has deep journalistic chops herself. So this was a very deliberate choice to go with Dell."

Dell used its launch ad to spotlight stories on topics like millennials in the workplace, marketing tech and women entrepreneurs. The campaign, which is set to run for three months, contains a mix of content from its own newsroom, articles from the Times' archives and original stories by Times-contracted freelancers on Dell-chosen topics.

"We have an affinity for editorial content," Losee said. "We're choosing to publish topics that are interesting to Dell's audiences. Dell's entire approach is, it's not really about us or our technology, it's about how our technologies help you do more in your own life and work. So our content philosophy is exactly the same."

The way publishers have chosen to label native ads and set it apart from their editorial content runs the gamut, but by definition, all native ads more or less take on the look and feel of the host publisher. Again, erring on the side of safety, the Times went further than most in identifying the product as an ad, lest it be mistaken for its journalism. The content is wrapped in a blue border and labeled "Paid post" or "Paid for and posted by Dell." Dell's name and logo is conspicuous throughout.

If, at the end of the day (and whether publishers and advertisers want to admit it or not), native advertising is meant to trick readers into thinking it's actual editorial content, the Times' overt labeling might seem to defeat the purpose.

But for the Times, where publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. himself took pains to reassure employees that the ad platform would not be confused with the paper's journalism, being too transparent doesn't seem possible.

"The Times could only do this in a way that's utterly clear to readers," Kopit Levien said. "I actually think the value of this is in, the brand gets to have their story on one of the most important places of storytelling on Earth."

After Dell, a handful of other clients whom the Times wouldn't name have committed to using the product in the coming months. But the labor and cost of creating native ads is a hurdle, and the Times made it clear that it sees the product as suited to only a limited number of advertisers. It won't come cheap for the Times, either, which is looking to hire a dozen or so people for a "content studio" to staff the effort.  

So while Kopit Levien said she expects native to be a "meaningful" business for the Times, she also stressed that it wouldn't replace traditional online ads, which the paper has also taken pains to reinvent with new jazzy formats. "We're not doing this to get out of the banner business," she said. "This will be very much additive."