Native helps pay for the news

“When it comes to native, publishers once again own the printing press.”

2015 will be the first year where native advertising programs will be in place at nearly every serious news organization.

amanda-haleNative advertising isn’t new, but the near-wholesale adoption of native at organizations with serious journalism credentials certainly is, and that’s a pretty big deal. 2014 saw the launch of native programs at places like The New York Times, The Texas Tribune, and Talking Points Memo (where I happen to work). All of these organizations saw significant digital advertising revenue growth. The Times saw a native-driven digital advertising increase of 16.5 percent in the third quarter, and at TPM we saw a native-driven annual ad revenue boost of nearly 70 percent in 2014.

Now, I know that to some people reading this, the term “native advertising” might still seem more suspect than the phrase “vertically integrated digital news company.” On more than a few occasions, I’ve found myself explaining my bullish position on native to very skeptical journalist friends.

But what’s most interesting to me about native — aside from the fact that it can’t be automated and scaled via networks like banners — is that it plays to the very heart of serious news organizations’ strengths. Quite simply, native advertising is advertising for people who read things. And I think that’s totally pivotal for journalism.

It’s pivotal because after years of publisher disintermediation and advertising commoditization, we’ve got a class of advertisers who value things like storytelling, engagement, and time spent with content. When it comes to native, publishers once again own the printing press.

So my hope is that 2015 is the year when we will all start to see native advertising not as a threat to serious journalism, but as a critically important revenue stream that will help us fund it.

Now, I think relying only on the sponsored story as a native delivery mechanism has done native a bit of a disservice; it’s allowed those not intimately involved in the guts of all of this to assume that all native is somehow about trickery or deceit. I’ve been very far down the belly of the beast, and I can assure you that’s not the case. At base, native simply eliminates the synthetic behavior of the click. Instead of expecting someone to click on an banner ad and exit, say, The Guardian’s website to engage with content from Toyota (which, mind you, only 0.03 percent of people actually ever do — on a good day), native puts that content directly onto the site where people are already reading and engaging with lots and lots of stuff. That’s about as dark as any of this gets.

I predict that 2015 will be the year that publishers will start to think beyond just the sponsored story as a way to deliver native. This will increase native’s performance for advertisers, and it will also increase native’s credibility with readers (and with the journalistic community at large). Ken Doctor recently detailed one of the new ways we’re delivering native content at TPM here, and I’ve recently seen a handful of interesting non-story post native executions at places like The Economist and The Washington Post.

Native makes advertising more complex, and I think complexity makes advertising a whole lot better. It replaces boxed ads featuring pictures and aphoristic slogans with long arguments and infographics. In 2015, I think the smartest news publishers will start to build native products that strip away the PR fluff that is inherent to a lot of current native — products that leverage data and facts to help advertisers communicate to news audiences in real, meaty, intelligence-respecting ways that no banner ad ever could.

Like I said, at TPM we’ve grown our ad revenue by about 70 percent in 2014, and that increase is largely attributable to native. And we’ve done this while still maintaining a clear, ethical division between our business and editorial teams and maintaining journalistic integrity. TPM is a very special place; we are fueled by the belief that if you’re idealistic and passionate about journalism, you need to be equally passionate about the business of journalism, too. This past year, the publishing team at TPM had a total blast building the skeleton of a native economy that we think will help fund the news for many years to come. And I hope that in 2015, other serious news organizations will have a blast building that skeleton too.

Amanda Hale is vice president of advertising and creative solutions at Talking Points Memo.