DENVER — A public radio station’s foray into native advertising, which seamlessly integrates paid content into a website’s editorial fare, stirred strong opinions at a July 10 session at the annual Public Media Development & Marketing Conference.
Attendees packed the room to hear about plans for native advertising on the site of Southern California Public Radio in Pasadena, Calif. The broadcaster received a $33,000 grant in April from the Investigative News Network and the Knight Foundation to experiment with native advertising, also known as sponsored content.
Over the six-month pilot stage, which ends in December, SCPR will develop a native-advertising framework for online and mobile platforms. “SCPR believes that the framework emerging from this grant will map out the common ground between the interests of its audience, underwriters, and journalistic principles,” INN said in a statement about the grant when it was announced. “At its conclusion, the organization will be much closer to determining whether sponsored content is a viable revenue stream for mission-driven, nonprofit content producers.”
According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, native advertising encompasses “paid ads that are so cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong.”
In experimenting with native advertising, SCPR joins nonprofits Voice of San Diego and the Texas Tribune, which began placing native ads on their websites this year. The Tribune's native advertising is labeled as “paid content” and appears in TribTalk, a section of the website set apart from editorial content.
“You may see some columns clearly labeled as ‘paid placement’ and visually differentiated to prevent readers from confusing them with independent editorial content,” the Tribune says on its website. “These columns are produced by corporate supporters of the Tribune who contract with its business staff to post them on TribTalk. They’re the digital equivalent of ‘advertorials’ you’ve seen in newspapers and magazines for decades.”
Such advertising provides an innovative way to bring in new revenue, said SCPR Digital Media Director Alex Schaffert-Callaghan at the PMDMC. Other sources of revenue in pubmedia, such as foundation funds, also require stations to be careful about undue influence, she said.
“It’s all about striking a balance,” she said.
Digital ads make up about 10 percent of SCPR’s underwriting revenue. “That does not a business model for the future make,” Callaghan said. “So we have to shake things up a little bit. We have to innovate a little bit. But not to the point where we are damaging our credibility.”
Harry Clark, g.m. of corporate underwriting and integrated media sponsorships at New York Public Radio, said the station has been approached about native advertising. Audiences are intelligent enough to discern sponsored content from other content, he said.
Advertisers are not trying to hoodwink the audience, Clark said, but are rather looking for a way to leverage the goodwill stations have with listeners and viewers.
“No one comes out and says, ‘We want native ads,’” Clark said. “They say, ‘We want something custom that our audience will react to.’”
But, he said, pubcasters pursuing native advertising should not give up too much in pursuit of revenue.
“Control needs to live at the station,” Clark said. “There should be veto control.”
Others at the session sounded a more cautionary note. Native advertising has huge potential to undermine public media’s reputation, said Morgan Holm, vice president of news and public affairs at Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“One thing we don’t want to lose sight of is the core value of trust,” Holm said. If pubcasters start blurring lines and cause audience members to wonder about who wrote or signed off on ads, "we might lose some trust,” he said.
Because online advertising is not subject to FCC regulations, “theoretically, we can do whatever we want,” Holm said. “The question is, just because we can, should we?”
Holm also cautioned that native advertising might make listeners feel less essential to stations’ fundraising efforts. “We spend a lot of time on the air telling the audience it’s their support that keeps us going,” he said. “Do we really want to monkey with that?”
John Barth, managing director of Public Radio Exchange, warned colleagues about native advertising, which he said was discussed at AOL when he worked for the company. “Be extremely careful,” said Barth, who specified that he was not speaking on behalf of PRX. “You think you’re playing with a new toy that’ll generate revenue. It sure will, and at the end of that pipe is a real danger with your audience.”
“Our job is to make sure journalism and news is in a pure space,” he added.
In response, Callaghan said that the New York Times recently used native advertising effectively by allowing Netflix to promote the series Orange Is the New Black in tandem with a reported piece about women in prisons. The newspaper had not sold native ads prior to this year.
“In a situation like that, the audience wins and the advertiser wins,” Callaghan said.
Callaghan also asked attendees to consider whether their digital ads were selling well enough and providing the best experience to visitors.
“We’re trying this out not so much because we think this is the ultimate answer, but we’re trying it because we think there has to be some innovation,” Callaghan said. “Digital ads are not really working all that well.”