Native advertising and the role of 'brand editors'

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As publishers add native advertising and other content marketing services to their product portfolios, there’s a growing need for business-side editorial teams to manage this content.

Sales teams have staffed editors as part of their custom publishing groups for decades. But the role of business-side editors is expanding as native advertising programs lead to more commingling of editorial and sponsored content.

Publishers that are experimenting with or considering a native advertising program may need to invest in a dedicated editorial team to help advertisers develop, optimize and publish content. Deploying “brand journalists” on native advertising projects – separate from the rest of the editorial staff – will also help publishers protect their own brand from thinly veiled press releases or other low-quality drivel that advertisers submit under the guise of “real” editorial.

There’s an urgency to get this right. In a recent study from Econsultancy and Adobe, content marketing was deemed the top priority for 2013 among digital marketers. And native advertising – in which branded content is published on third-party media sites – is quickly becoming a key piece of brands' content marketing strategies.

Publishers are rushing to catch the wave. The Washington Post is the latest to launch a native advertising program. WaPo’s BrandConnect, introduced on Monday, models Forbes Media’s BrandVoice, which lets brands publish their own blog content on the Forbes platform.  

Native advertising programs such as BrandConnect and BrandVoice offer a way for publishers to diversify their advertising revenue streams and build potentially more lucrative relationships with advertisers. Brands love this approach because publishing blogs, articles, slideshows and other “real” content allows them to become more closely aligned with the publisher’s brand and, in theory at least, with its audience.

The most provocative element of the evolving relationship between publisher and brand involves development of the actual content. Some publishers, such as Forbes, are giving brands unfettered access to their content management systems and saying “have at it.” Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis D’Vorkin justifies the approach by saying the Forbes audience will decide if the content is worthy or not.

That’s a risky path. It only takes one really bad post to tarnish a publisher’s brand, especially if it goes viral. After its much-scrutinized Scientology debacle, The Atlantic revised its policy for sponsored content, stating among other guidelines that it “will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.”

That’s where editorial oversight comes into play. With all due respect to sales teams, they are skilled at closing deals, not judging the quality of editorial content. Sponsored content should be subject to at least some of the same checks and balances as any staff-written blog post, feature or video. The need for better oversight is leading some publishers to create their own “brand newsrooms” to review and in some cases create sponsored and other custom content for advertisers.

Creating a separate editorial staff for native advertising and other content marketing programs is not simply good risk management – it’s a way for publishers to sell more marketing services. A business-side editorial team can take on any aspect of digital content production – story development, interviews, research, writing, publishing, search and social optimization, and promotion. The beauty is that each of these services can carry a price tag.

One caveat: It’s critical that brand editors are separate from the main editorial team. Expecting your publication’s editors and writers to work directly with clients on sponsored content obliterates any perception of objectivity and will destroy the trust you’ve built with your readers.

To succeed in this brave new world of native advertising, business-side editors will have to enhance their own skills. A journalist’s transition to the “dark side” can be jarring. That’s a topic for a future post.

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