Should web journalists be allowed to write native advertising?

blumberg

At first listen, it can be easy to construe the latest episode of Startup, the podcast hosted by This American Life alum Alex Blumberg that recounts his attempts at starting a podcasting company, as evidence of the perils of native advertising. Blumberg’s podcasting company is called Gimlet Media, and a few weeks ago Gimlet launched its first show, Reply All, which produces stories on internet culture and the way it impacts our lives. Those who have listened to Startup since its debut know that Blumberg uses a quirky approach to advertising. He first begins playing a distinctive music beat to signal to the listener that he or she is listening to an ad — a unique approach to disclosure — and then Blumberg, rather than playing a standard radio ad, will interview someone at the company that purchased the sponsorship about something interesting related to that company.

The email marketing company Mailchimp, for instance, sells miniature hats for cats, and so Blumberg interviewed the woman in Asia who single-handedly makes the hats for Mailchimp. He’s essentially using the storytelling techniques he developed for This American Life and applying them to advertising, and in the process it’s much more engaging to the listener. If I were an advertiser, having a much-loved radio host employ his craft on my company would outweigh any other form of advertising I could spend my money on.

But in the recent episode of Startup, Blumberg detailed how this process went awry. The inaugural episode of Reply All was sponsored by Squarespace, a website-building platform and frequent podcast advertiser, and Gimlet tasked one of its young producers to find interesting websites built on Squarespace so Blumberg could interview them. One of those she approached was a 9-year-old boy who’d built a website about Minecraft, and when the producer corresponded by email with the boy’s mother, the mother somehow came to the conclusion that her son was being interviewed for This American Life, not an advertisement. Understandably, she was furious when the ad ran, and so she set off a mini internet tweet storm that, for a 24-hour period, gained some traction.

The issue diffused relatively quickly, concluding with Blumberg interviewing the mom about her perception of the entire fiasco, but it sent Gimlet Media into introspection about the policies it put in place for its advertising. What Gimlet was essentially doing was employing native ads, which is advertising designed to look like the editorial content that appears within the same outlet. Some have been warning of the dangers of blurring the lines between editorial and business, and how this can lead to an erosion of trust with the consumer. Looked at in a certain way, this blunder from Gimlet Media can be considered proof of concept.

But in reality, this was a  singular episode that can easily be avoided in the future, and the producer who books the interviews for advertisements will be clearer in her wording that her inquiries pertain to sponsorships. What this episode hammered home to me was the effectiveness of this kind of advertising, and how podcasts have developed new approaches to native advertising that have not been adopted on other mediums.

For most web and print publications that have waded into native advertising, there’s still a distinct line drawn between those who create the sponsored posts and those who write the editorial content. BuzzFeed employs an entire team of separate writers who just focus on writing creative sponsored content for advertisers. This divide doesn’t exist within podcasting.

For nearly every podcast I listen to, those who host the show are the ones who also narrate the sponsorship section. In many cases, the person does little more than recite the tagline and describe, with mid-level enthusiasm, what the product does. But other podcasters have had fun with the form, incorporating it into the rest of the content in ways that are just as entertaining as the non-sponsored sections. The comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, for instance, is consistently sponsored by a bondage gear and sex toy company called Extreme Restraints. The hosts’ riffs and jokes about Extreme Restraints — in many cases making fun of the company — produce some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the podcast. It would be difficult to put a price on that kind of branding.

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So let’s say you have a traditional web or print publication with big-name reporters who have amassed devoted followings. Why not set them and their storytelling skills onto your advertisers, allowing them to draw out facts and weave them into an article that your readers will actually want to, you know, read?

Though no established publication would think of doing such a thing, there are independent writers who have done this with very little negative feedback. John Gruber, the blogger behind Daring Fireball, has long employed the use of sponsored posts, running one such post a week for $9,250. Because he’s the only one who writes for the site, it’s easy to conclude that he plays at least some part in crafting the sponsored posts. Single-author interior design and parenting blogs have also employed sponsored posts, in some cases performing home renovations or decorating while using materials provided by the sponsor (I’ll have more about this in an upcoming article I’m working on).

There have been some instances where outlets using more traditional reporting have dabbled in allowing their reporters to write sponsored content. TAPinto, a successful local news company I profiled a few months ago, agrees to write profiles on any advertiser who signs a year-long contract. Because many of their advertisers are local business, this content is highly relevant to the readers.

It may be only a matter of time before a larger media company decides to tear down that wall between its writers and sponsors, and I can only imagine the outpouring of think pieces about how this is just one further step toward the death of journalism. But while navigating the steps of native advertising is tricky, advertising is a form of media, and it would be nicer, as a consumer who has to consume advertising whether I like it or not, if that form of media is at least entertaining. So why not employ the most entertaining storytellers to carry it out?

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Smesh