Last month, the American Magazine Conference convened a panel to address the question, "How should editorial guidelines influence the development of native advertising?" As covered by Advertising Age, the answer was "not at all". I think that's a mistaken perspective.
First, a bit of background: In this case, the "editorial guidelines" are a set of recommended practices, developed the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), that began as a way to distinguish the presentation of advertiser-sponsored print content from editorial. The basic rules involved visual clues: fonts should differ from those used for editorial; layouts should not mimic editorial formats; and pages should be prominently labeled something like "special advertising section".
In the past, publications that did not follow the guidelines have been sanctioned, a scarlet letter that probably had relatively little commercial impact. Advertisers, sales people and some magazines have periodically tested the limits of ASME guidelines, and sometimes ASME pushed back.
As publishing has moved from print to digital distribution, ASME has updated its guidelines. Still, the ability to embed related links, sponsored links, paid content and now native advertising has left some editors wondering if there are any limits to what a publisher will do for an advertiser.
I've argued that the best solution, perhaps the only solution, is to do what's right by the reader. If you don't meet the needs and expectations of your readers, you don't have much of an audience to offer anyone else.
That sensibility was far from evident at the AMC panel, whose participants offered these perspectives (verbatim):
- The industry worries too much about labeling. For 100 years we've conditioned people to ignore advertising. Native advertising changes that with the right content and intentions.
- It's important for us that [native advertising] looks like a content site.
- We won't be using the term native advertising in five years. There will no need to identify it. It will all blend.
- A very small group of people* shouldn't over-police native advertising.
As much as publishers and ad agencies want to resist an organization like ASME, the association at least represents an effort to police publishing on behalf of consumers. A perceived failure to clearly separate an editorial from a sponsored message generally gets the attention of a somewhat larger group of people at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
This isn't an idle observation. The FTC has already investigated bloggers who accepted payment, whether in cash or in kind, for special mentions of products and services. The practice was widespread enough to warrant govenment intervention. It resulted in the promulgation of a set of guidelines that mandated disclosure and transparency. It also made clear the penalties for failing to follow the rules.
Now, native advertising gains the spotlight. The FTC "will host a one-day workshop on Wednesday, December 4, 2013 to examine the blending of advertisements with news, entertainment, and other editorial content in digital media". Attendees are expected to include "publishing and advertising industry representatives, consumer advocates, academics, and self-regulatory organizations".
In a tweet made during the AMC panel, Forbes publisher Mike Federle was quoted as saying that it won't be ASME or the FTC telling publishers what to do with native advertising; the direction will come from consumers. If publishers don't serve readers' needs, the complaints will certainly come from consumers, but I think the FTC has shown that it is more than willing to set direction. Just look at the blogger guidelines.
*This means "ASME".
A bit of disclosure: I worked with Mike Federle when he was an ad salesperson at Time Inc.