“Wow, those results are impressive. What did you say it was called again? Native advertising? What does that mean?” 


I’ve been selling and producing native advertising for APG Media's southern Minnesota division for about three months now, and I can write with absolute confidence that I get those questions more than any other, even questions about cost.

As part of my institutional fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, I am studying how to implement a successful native advertising program in a small media market. Thus far, I can boast some successes: 

  • We’ve hosted Lunch and Learn sessions in five different markets to educate brands about native advertising.  More than a third of them purchased at least one native ad.
  • Getting in front of a client made all the difference. We have a more than 80 percent close rate when we meet with the client and talk them through the process.
  • Our website visitors are spending, on average, as much time – more than a minute – with our native ads as they are with our more traditional editorial content.

But semantics – how we define this new form of advertising – is getting in the way. Clients don’t get the term “native advertising,” and you have to admit, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. 

I’m not the only one who has experienced this. As an industry, we’re not exactly consistent in our use of the term – or any term related to the blending of editorial and advertising. Does native advertising mean advertorial, sponsored content or branded content?

About a year ago, the Interactive Advertising Bureau published a native advertising playbook that, among other things, attempted to define terms.  Others have followed, including brands themselves. Cisco describes it as a “seamless journey from editorial to brand content,” according to eMarketer. Early on, the National Newspaper Association, Local Media Association  and other organizations also attempted to define the concept. Marketing agencies like The Blinder Group have tried as well.

The common thread to me is that all these attempts come from an advertising viewpoint. And the one thing we all agree on is the best native advertising starts with quality content. So, shouldn’t the experts on what defines quality content be weighing in a little more forcefully here?

Journalists have been lukewarm on the concept of native advertising since it began to gather real steam in 2013. That’s a mistake. It’s not going away; it’s growing. In fact, more publishers are asking editorial employees to write it. Journalists should be taking the lead in defining native advertising and creating and implementing its ethical guidelines.

So here are some definitions from this journalist’s perspective. As always, I welcome your feedback. I’ll attack the ethical debate in my next blog post.

Content marketing: I took a Coursera class on this as I was conducting research for my Reynolds Fellowship. It’s really a catchall term that describes a method to build consumer trust, and eventually consumer action, by emphasizing valuable content.  Here’s where we get into the chicken-and-egg argument: If the content comes first, is it really content marketing or just good journalism? After all, as anyone who has written a business profile knows, even if it is an honest and well-rounded piece of journalism, it could be perceived as advertising for the brand. The only difference is that a journalist conceived it, not a marketer.

Sponsored content: This is an umbrella term that describes all matter of content that has been purchased by a brand, such as the click-bait you see at the bottom of publishers’ websites under the headlines “You may also like” or “From around the Web.”  From this journalist’s perspective, some sponsored content does more damage to the format than good, while others show why blended editorial and advertising can work for both the brand and the reader. It shouldn’t be used interchangeably with native advertising. More on that in a minute.

Branded content or advertorial:  This is content that is controlled by the brand, plain and simple. It’s that fact that differentiates it from native advertising. For example, Verizon earlier this year began hiring journalists to write news for its site SugarString. It lasted less than two months. Why? The brand began dictating what the journalists could and couldn’t write about. You can’t do that and also call what you’re doing news – or journalism, for that matter. The Washington Post recently launched BrandConnect, which allows brands to publish their opinion content next to The Washington Post’s own pieces. It’s labeled as a piece submitted and paid for by a brand. Trust accordingly.

Native advertising: I will admit, I’m not a fan of this term, but until someone comes up with something better and that isn’t as broad as sponsored content, I’m sticking with it. Here is what makes native stand apart: 

  1. It’s controlled by journalists, not the brand. In my native advertising program, I come up with the ideas that are pitched to the brand. For example, a story about the recent growth in new construction permits in our community gets pitched (and bought) by a local bank. Brands are welcome to pitch ideas, but they are accepted or rejected based on news value, not on marketing strategy for the brand.
  2. It runs where the content dictates it should. Brands cannot pay for position in my program. And yes, I will use as many SEO tools as I can but it doesn’t drive how the story or headline is written.
  3. Other than its labeling, which is clear and prominent, it is indistinguishable from the other content on a site. This is by far the most difficult tenet to follow, and I have fallen short more than once in the three months I’ve done this. Falling short is when the content becomes something other than native advertising, much closer to advertorial. It hasn’t come about as a result of pressure from the brand, but rather the same factors that affected me as a journalist before I was writing native advertising. Some stories you nail, others miss the mark.
  4. It’s bylined. If it’s truly quality content, why wouldn’t you put your name on it?
  5. Now, the most controversial point: It drives conversion. Had we as an industry been smart enough to look at this years ago, we would’ve discovered that consumers were already making purchasing decisions based on what they read in their local publication. As long as it’s not the cause of the piece but rather the effect of the quality of content, driving conversion is a good thing – for your employer and for your community.

I’ve written it here before, but it bears repeating: If journalists are part of the native advertising conversation and provide the guidelines by which it is produced, it can be fruitful for both the editorial and business sides of a publication.

Jaci Smith  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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