Los Angeles

Branded Content Guidelines: let’s not just let the ad guys make ’em

Help create the rules: pretending branded content isn't happening won't make it go away. It will, instead, kill journalism.

Sponsored content, native advertising, advertorial, An Abomination Created By Ctulhu and the Elder Gods to Destroy All That Is Holy About Journalism: it doesn’t matter what you call it, it’s coming and we’re all going to have to deal with it over the next few years.

Why? Banner blindness; the proliferation of AdBlock, NoScript and other add-ons designed to kill advertising; increasing desperation on the part of publishers; clickfraud & the rise of visibility standards; CPMs in a death spiral because of RTB exchanges. Take your pick of these or a dozen other forces reshaping the advertising world, but the trends are clear. See http://contently.com/strategist/2015/03/27/why-the-new-york-times-sponsored-content-is-going-toe-to-toe-with-its-editorial/ and http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/04/the-economists-tom-standage-on-digital-strategy-and-the-limits-of-a-model-based-on-advertising/

The problem is that the only people really working to set standards on what is and is not allowed in native ads/branded content are pretty much the ad guys. The IAB is trying to come up with standards, but when you get serious with editors (even at places like Vice, where they have a lot of leverage), and they admit that there really ARE NO RULES, and it’s all being handled on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis.

This is a recipe for disaster. We’re going to alienate our audience if they lose trust in us because we can’t articulate what we will, or will not do.

At ONA, we’ve pretty got rooms full of the smartest people in digital journalism. Let’s leverage that and see what kind of rules, guidelines and best practices we can come up with.


I plan to bring in as many smart, digital-savvy ad execs as I can round up in Los Angeles into what is normally a purely editorial-side conference. That in and of itself is bringing in voices that we don't always get to hear - or pay attention when they do talk.

Too often, we talk and write a lot about "new business models" without actually hearing from the people whose business is to actually make these theoretical models work in the really real world. In my conversations with the "ad side" of news operations, I hear an increasing level of frustration with what they see as the intransigence of "ivory-tower journalists who can't face up to reality."


Janine Warner | DigitalFamily | @janinewarner

Adriana Pena | Entravision