Businesswoman reading latest news “Am I looking at an ad or a link to a legitimate article?” This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot in the last year. As media outlets are looking for new ways to generate digital ad dollars, they’ve found incredible success with native advertising (digital ads disguised as editorial). The line between ad and editorial is becoming increasingly blurred, and as both a reader and a marketer, I find it equally deplorable and full of opportunity. Regardless of how you feel, there’s no doubt that it’s allowing new consumer media to flourish and helping old consumer media to stay afloat. But what about B2B media?

I would argue that despite fewer native ad opportunities in the B2B world, the public appears to be increasingly content-hungry, and as marketers, we need to understand the convergence of the traditionally separate roles of copywriting, creative, PR, video production and media buying.

While advertorials are certainly nothing new — they became common practice in 1960s print media — the digital age is allowing for new and more creative ways of presenting them. Let’s look at how native advertising is being used in consumer media.

THE NEW: The good
An entirely new category of media has sprung up with the sole purpose of generating dollars through native advertising clicks. Buzzfeed is perhaps the most notable (and most legitimate) of these sites. One hundred percent of their revenue comes from sponsored content, an example being “15 Reasons There Is No Cure For The Common Man Cold, sponsored by Walgreens.” Still, Buzzfeed has a style all its own, and their sponsors must be willing to have a good sense of humor to fit the style of the editorial; that’s why I would consider Buzzfeed as a top-tier outlet within this category. Then you have the lower tiers — click-bait sites.

THE NEW: The bad and the ugly
Anyone with a Facebook feed should be familiar with sponsored content from click-bait sites. They usually feature an enticing headline such as, “Elderly woman crosses street. What happens next will BLOW YOUR MIND.” I assure you the only thing that will blow your mind is how underwhelming the content is and how overpopulated the site is with native ads, which read something like, “New hormone supplement discovered, BUT IS IT SAFE?” alongside a picture of an old man with a poorly Photoshopped body of a 20-year-old. If you click that link, you’ll be taken to an article on the company’s website talking about how safe it is to build muscle mass with their supplement.

The benefit of advertising on social media is that the reader has no expectation of editorial excellence, so Facebook can sell “sponsored content” to anyone and everyone — and they are. Advertising Age reports that advertising sales at Facebook grew 64 percent in 2014, two-thirds of which came from sponsored content.

THE NEW: The satirical
The Onion recently launched a sister site, ClickHole.com, which lampoons the aforementioned category of click-bait sites, as their tagline indicates: “ClickHole — Because all content deserves to go viral.” Their articles poke fun at the complete absence of compelling content from click-bait sites. Here’s my favorite example, entitled, “We Tried To Throw A Rock At This Boat.” But as with any media site, there must be revenue to stay afloat, and ClickHole is no exception. What route do they choose? Why, native advertising, of course. See “7 Slices Of Pizza You Should Invite To Your Super Bowl Party, presented by DiGiorno pizza.”

THE OLD: Staying afloat
Traditional media outlets that have been willing to adopt native advertising as a revenue stream are reaping serious benefits. Advertising Age reports that the New York Times increased digital ad revenue by 16.5 percent in Q3 of 2014. This was apparently enough to nearly offset losses in classified advertising. This is the challenge that most traditional print media are currently facing, and it’s one that many reputable outlets such as the Washington Post, The Guardian, Time Magazine and Forbes are tackling head-on with the recent addition of native advertising.

Condé Nast — the publisher behind titles such as The New Yorker, GQ and Vogue — recently announced their plans to offer sponsored content that will be written by their editorial staffs. This doesn’t just blur the line between unbiased journalism and advertising — it erases it.

The ethical dilemma here is that readers do have an expectation of editorial integrity with these publications, and the way native advertising or sponsored content is being labeled is inconsistent — and sometimes nearly nonexistent. While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has held workshops to explore potential regulation, there is currently nothing on the books that defines how native advertisements should be labeled by publishers.

With the same expectation of editorial integrity, where does B2B media stand on all this, and what should we do about it?

THE B2B: Dipping toes in the water
It’s safe to say native advertising (per se) isn’t quite as prevalent in B2B media as in mainstream media at this time, but it’s certainly there. In fact, it’s almost everywhere, but perhaps just presented a little differently.

Pay-for-play: As much as the “separation of church and state” rule is expected to exist, I do believe that there is a tendency of some publications to be generous editorially to those who advertise — whether it’s intentional, or perhaps the advertisers simply have more name recognition with the editors, I can’t say for sure.
Value-add editorial: Many publications offer native-ad-like opportunities as part of advertising packages that include banner ads (e.g., 50-word text box if you sponsor an e-newsletter).
Sponsored videos: I’ve seen a lot of “sponsored video” sections added to B2B websites in the last couple of years. While some are clearly advertisements (and marked as such), others are heavily disguised as editorial content, even involving interviews between editorial staff and the advertiser.

Future of native in B2B
There are many factors that separate consumer and B2B media — many of which would affect an outlet’s decision to adopt native advertising. And for insight into how these factors are currently shaping the B2B landscape, I turned to Dan Barnes, managing director at Two Rivers Marketing, who oversees both our digital and media buying teams.

Our jobs are becoming blurrier … and better
The blurred lines between ad and editorial have necessitated a shift in the way we think as B2B marketers. Copywriters have to think like PR writers, and PR writers are increasingly weighing in on content for paid placements. If a publication doesn’t offer native advertising, clever B2B marketers are doing their best to design digital ads that appear more editorial.

Like it, love it or hate it — native advertising isn’t going away anytime soon. It seems readers are hungry for information, regardless of its source. As B2B marketers, we need to appease the audience by providing them with compelling content, and that often means taking an editorial approach to advertising.

About John Krantz

Creative and strategic don’t always go together. John Krantz, a public relations director at Two Rivers Marketing, is an exception. He honed those skills while capturing monkey calls in the Costa Rican jungle. For the last six years, he’s utilized his talents for PR strategy, copy writing, media relations and video production. John’s wild about creating videos for clients and local film festivals. Swing into his inbox at jkrantz@2rm.com