WTF is promoted-native-sponsored-brand-voice-content? It’s an ad.
That’s WTF it is.

More than half of the people I surveyed did *not* know what “promoted” means

Today I posted the latest chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts on Medium. It’s about native advertising. Since the book was published, I’ve been doing more thinking about the topic. In that process, I took this screenshot from Upworthy:

Then I spent $50 of my money on Google Consumer Surveys to ask 500 random Americans of every description what “promoted” means. The results: More than half did not know it was an ad.

Mind you, this is an Upworthy kind of ad, promoting not just a product but a cause. The link from that box goes to this page, which explains more—kind of: “This is part of a special Upworthy series on promoting and protecting women’s economic and reproductive rights, made possible by Ultraviolet. Read more.” “Made possible”—what does that mean? Ad. I clicked on that link, read more, and ended up confused about promoted content vs. sponsored content vs. content. Upworthy tries to explain: “We work directly with brands and organizations on an issue or set of issues that matter to them and to our world.” In other words: A sponsor paid for this. Fine.

Wouldn’t it be a helluvalot simpler just to call it an ad? Why don’t they? Why doesn’t any publisher of such promoted/native/sponsored/brand content just call it an ad? Because busy people don’t want to click on ads; if the web proves nothing else, it proves that. So they—publisher and marketer, united—want to fool the reader into clicking. And, no, this is not new. It has been the case since the invention of that ear-curdling word, the “advertorial.”

But there’s a key difference today. Now we in media are not just selling our space and audiences to our advertisers, we are selling our skills, our voice, sometimes our brand value. In the old days, we journalists thought our key skill was storytelling. Most still do. (I could argue that point but I won’t right now.) The skills that made our organizations money were separate: production, distribution, sales. It was easy to separate them with a wall.

Today, nobody needs our production; they have the same tools we do. Hardly anybody needs our distribution; they, too, are looking for link love on Facebook. They never needed our sales. But now they do think they need our storytelling. In fact, they’ve wanted that for sometime; that’s called PR, otherwise known as earned media, free publicity. Used to be, we didn’t sell that.

Now, in the desperate days of digital, we’re willing to sell our mothers. We make your story look like our story and will put your story in the flow of our stories and label it in some ambiguous way—promoted, sponsored, whatever—and turn a blind eye to how we are fooling our readers and (further) diminishing our brands.

About now, I can see eyes rolling at what many will take as my scolding attitude toward commerce. Listen, there’s no one more eager to find new business models for news than me; that is my day job. If brands have a story they want to tell, I’m the last person to tell them they can’t. If we can find ways to get brands to continue to pay us, mazel.

But…

I am dubious that native/promoted/sponsored/voice advertising will be the salvation of news any more than tablets, paywalls, apps, or moguls were. The form is still new. Only time will tell whether 500-word stories will move product better than five-word slogans. The return on investment of this form of advertising is—so far as I’ve seen—still unproven.

Mostly I’m concerned about the impact on news brands of confusing the public regarding the difference between editorial and paid-for content. I’m equally concerned about the impact on our J-school graduates, who will one day make journalism and the next will make—in the soul-curdling term—brand journalism. How will they navigate from church to state and back again in their own heads?

I am not completely rejecting this new form and revenue that comes with it. It wouldn’t matter if I did; it’s here to stay. So I say we need more research and discussion about whether our users are confused, about the business efficacy of it, and about the standards under which it should be made and, uh, promoted. At CUNY, we are planning an event to foster just such discussion and I’d appreciate hearing what you would like to see that accomplish.

What alternative to this form of advertising do I see? That’s what I’m laying out in Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, which I’m posting, chapter by chapter, for free, here on Medium. There I argue that we must shift from business models built on volume—pageviews by the thousand, eyeballs by the ton—to business models built on value, on serving people not as a mass but as individuals and communities, with relevance that comes from building relationships with them.

Easy for me to say. Well, this won’t be quick or easy. That is why I am suspicious of native/sponsored/promoted/brand/voice content/advertising as a quick and easy fix. We must recognize that credibility is our only true asset. And fooling readers into clicking on ads by confusing them with the words we use is no one’s path to trust, authority, and value.

So please start here: Label ads clearly. That’s not so hard.