Jon Wilks of Arena: separating fact from fiction in the brave new world of native advertising

The struggle for the legitimacy of the written word is an ongoing and bloody battle. From the world of ‘native advertising’ (which seems so deceptive, even though they’ve been doing it on screen for years), to its more established cousin, advertorial, there can be a pervasive feeling of trickery when brands partner with journalists, or become publishers in their own right.

But I would argue that it can be done – and done well. Brands that successfully pursue the notion of becoming publishers, developing their websites to host original, unbiased, editorial content, prove that they really are the last word on their topic, and can work towards securing consumer trust.

‘Talking around’ your brand is absolutely key to getting content right. Your university professor probably told you to ‘read around your subject’ in order to develop your authority on it. In the same way, brands should use content to ‘talk around’ their sector, building the sense that they really are experts in their field in the eyes of their customers. Publishing this work on their own website is the first step towards showing an audience that the brand has their interests at heart, rather than an unswerving desire to sell.

A great example of a harmonious and bountiful relationship between brand and editorial can be found on a blog called The Cleanest Line – the online publishing arm of the American outdoor apparel company, Patagonia. The blog is clearly branded with the Patagonia logo, but this doesn’t bother the readership as the content exists on a site that hasn’t announced itself as a traditional media platform. It’s advertorial, but in its own environment. You might even call it branded content.

The Cleanest Line rarely mentions Patagonia or its products, instead focusing on the lifestyle choices and interests of the brand’s core audience. It works to inspire its readers, to keep them abreast of new outdoor challenges and possibilities, and the approach is rewarded with amazing social media stats (304,250 Facebook likes) and an impressive Google page rank (6). In essence, The Cleanest Line has become an authority on outdoor living. It just so happens that their sister company makes outdoor apparel too.

This editorial approach – placing the audience rather than the brand at the heart of the action – is a pleasing and increasing trend. It’s an approach that helps brands appear useful and trustworthy in the eyes of their customers, which also means more meaningful, less cacophonous content for the rest of us. Quality is becoming important once again, and brands that entrust editorial professionals to get the job done right see the benefits.

The Taste blog, powered by Williams Sonoma, is another example, offering great content to – and prompting genuinely positive interaction with – 570,000 Facebook users, 57,000 Tweeters and a large and passionate Tumblr audience.

Ultimately, the creation of compelling content comes down to defining the area of interest that your brand shares with its audience, which a more traditional editor would say has a lot to do with gut feeling. These days, it has as much (if not more) to do with the collection of data, and the ability to put that to good use. Knowing, quite literally, what makes your readers switch off, and what they want from you, allows for something a lot more rigid than guess work. And so the branded written word can be hewn and refined in a way that is genuinely useful.

Content that comes across as compelling – and legitimate – needs to be unbiased, moving away from the urge to sell towards sharing the brand’s passion for their ‘world’ with their audience. And where’s the sense in struggling with that?

unnamedJon Wilks is editorial director of Arena.

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