“Ads” says John Oliver, “are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except, it’s actually more like raisins in a cookie—nobody f#@$ing wants them there.”
Whether it’s called native advertising, content marketing or branded content, Oliver’s point that it threatens editorial independence, misleads readers, erodes trust, and is indicative of the broader financial problems hampering news organisations, was debated at the recent CAANZ session ‘Who’s buying? The future of content commercialisation in NZ’. Panelists met the charge head on.
According to Simon Wilson, Metro’s outgoing editor, Oliver’s raisin in the cookie analogy may be cute, but it’s not useful.
“We’ve been having this [editorial versus branded content] debate for a long time now. But this is new – we are evolving and working at next level. Our industry is undergoing rapid change so we must get this right or die. There are lots of stories we can’t do anymore as we don’t have the resource but, if there are ways in which we can acknowledge where the content comes from, without compromising the story, then bring it on,” says Wilson.
Duncan Greive, freelance journalist and editor of culture website The Spinoff, agrees.
“The old model doesn’t work anymore. We are clear and upfront with where the content comes from. The writer, brand and audience all get something from this,” says Greive.
There was general agreement among panelists that while the lines that sit between earned and paid media are shifting, some essential distinction between journalism and content marketing needs to be preserved.
While noting that the NZ Herald has six different types of content categories from news through to sponsored content and advertorial, Tim Murphy, former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, former chair of the national Media Freedom Committee and executive committee member of the Press Council, is a self-proclaimed editorial purist when it comes to news.
“In news features, we must keep a firm line for people’s own belief and the value of the material,” says Murphy.
Alana O’Neill, head of integration at Mediaworks, agrees that incorporating content marketing into news is hard to do.
“The 6pm bulletin is off limits, except for the overt sponsorship for the sports news," says O'Neill. "Agenda-based current affairs have been around long time, and any type of branded content needs to be transparent and respect the audience. Entertainment is certainly easier but it depends on style and format of show. For example, shows like Paul Henry can push the boat out while staying true to style or tone.”
Despite a concern about ensuring branded content is properly labelled, the reality is that often the labels are the only discernible difference. It’s not that readers don’t know where each piece of content comes from—it’s a question of how much they care.
“People don't care where content comes from as long as it's good," says Wilson. "The important issue is transparency, if we deceive readers, then we are in trouble.”
Ellen Read, national business editor at Fairfax Media NZ, agrees it’s essential that branded content is labelled and says audiences shouldn’t have to figure it out.
“It’s key that people know what they are getting, that the audience we are writing for accepts the lens that we are putting forward," says Read. "PR forms the basis of many stories and in many ways this is more of an issue than branded content. As long as commercial content is clear about what it is, if it’s smooth, seamless and honest, then, done well, content marketing promotes more editorial integrity.”
Wilson believes The Spinoff has the balance right.
“Duncan’s shown that it’s possible to have a vehicle that aims really high in terms of good quality journalism that people want to read but also has a commercial purpose and doesn’t compromise,” says Wilson.
When it comes to measuring the success of branded content, Greive says that while depth of engagement is a more important measure than viewer numbers, he questions the need to measure at all.
“The realms of data that are being created led to us being hypnotised that everything is measurable," says Greive. "Ultimately though, I think we just know if something’s successful and has a high quality of engagement.”
O’Neill says that part of the challenge from the publisher or broadcaster side is understanding the value of content.
“While the sales channel in the organisation has an awareness of value, a lot of branded content goes direct to the editorial team who don’t necessarily have the same understanding of what it’s worth – it needs to be a fair value exchange,” says O’Neill.
“Stand back from your own product and see where it fits in from an audience viewpoint. We can provide intermediaries that have integrity. We have to work together on this. We can deliver the audience, but can't make them take the next step. Brands shouldn't step back, they need to be in the room with all the key stakeholders – brand, agencies, media - and involved in process on how the project should be run and measured.”
Advertisers and journalists have always been partners, and that partnership has always contained an inherent tension.
“I think the tension will always be there," says O'Neill. "There will always be demand from clients to maximise the sales message and demand from the editorial team to operate unfettered. But this opens up opportunities."
While the debate on its value will no doubt continue, it’s clear that in our rapidly evolving media landscape that commercialised content is here to stay. Whether or not it’s a raisin or chocolate chip depends on whether the content fits naturally with the media’s own brand and audience. The long-term survival of media organisations relies on brands, advertisers and media working together to make a cookie that’s not just healthy but tastes good too.
- The CAANZ PREScom Speaker Series panelist discussion was adjudicated by Ben Fahy, associate publisher of Tangible Media and editor of StopPress and Marketing Magazine.
- Megan Clark is the managing director at Copper Brand Experiences.