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The Sunday People's Buzzfee-style native advertising experiment

When news hit that a UK paper had launched a brand new, seven-day-a-week website, funded solely by 2013’s biggest buzzword- native advertising- the media sphere lit up with chatter on what this meant both for the title in question and the wider world of journalism. We’re still not sure, but rather than giving up and accepting perpetual confusion, staff at this particular Manchester public relations agency haven’t stopped deliberating over the consequences.
To fill in any blanks, The People‘s new online editorial domain is one of the first websites in the UK to attempt to use native advertising- defined by in an AOL UK report as “sponsored content, which is relevant to the consumer experience, which is not interruptive, and which looks and feels similar to its editorial environment”- as its sole source of revenue. Putting it in more traditional language, this is akin to a magazine deciding only to sell advertorial space, rather than advertisements, in order to pay for set up, staff and production costs.
Already the launch has been likened to Buzzfeed, albeit aimed at a more mature audience, which is not to be sniffed at given said celebrity news and toilet-reading material website, which specialising in selling native ad space, garners roughly 80million monthly users and continues to grow. Meanwhile, Huffington Post has also made a few bucks (or rather several million) from a framework including native advertising, although whether or not they now bother to pay writers a fair amount for their copy is another question altogether.
From a neutral perspective The Sunday People’s move is certainly interesting. Content marketing, not least via third parties, is one of the fastest growing areas of brand promotion. Internet users want to read articles and receive information that’s both relevant to and interests them, and in many cases they aren’t too bothered where that comes from, so long as there is no hard sell. By having branded content posted on trusted and much-loved external sites firms are increasing the potential to draw inbound traffic to their websites- a ‘feature’ relating to healthcare on a news site, discussing the latest government policies, may well encourage click throughs to the a specific section of an NHS website, if it’s referenced in article itself. And that’s just a basic example.
Needless to say, this type of revenue stream requires a good writer and is arguably the only end of digital marketing that actually values the inherent qualities of scribemanship. Further to this then, given the obvious value of native advertising to brands, many are willing to pay decent money in order to have the right professionals at the right titles post the right word about them. Arguably, this could be the long-awaited solution to the journalistic woes stemming from profit losses and lack of funding that have troubled the press since digital became the pre-eminent source of news. We certainly hope so, although it’s not all (definitely) blue skies and good times ahead.
The problem being if this concept is allowed to undermine the integrity of editorial outlets by confusing readers into thinking paid-for stories are actually neutral and objective. Already it’s highly likely that many web readers- who spend a very short amount of time perusing each page- are unaware that some of the articles they digest were put there by a brand. Therefore if this model is to continue growing in a mutually beneficial way for journalists, advertisers and the public surely we must come up with a clear code of conduct, and universal marking system, ensuring people are under no illusions as to why that particular content exists in the first place.

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