Why media companies should pay attention to Medium’s native ads

There are plenty of things about Medium that are interesting from a media point of view, including the fact that it is a blend of platform and publisher — hosting content that others write for free, but also commissioning its own content from established writers. But one of the things that doesn’t get written about a lot is the company’s approach to native advertising or sponsored content, which is something I think more media outlets should be paying attention to, and/or stealing ideas from if they can.

The platform, which former Twitter CEO Evan Williams launched in 2012, has come out with a number of experiments around how it creates and displays content, but the most interesting is the use of sponsored, topic-specific verticals as an advertising strategy. As Digiday notes, the company launched its second of these on Monday: called Gone, it is focused on travel and sponsored by the Marriott Hotel chain.

Like Re:Form — the design-focused vertical that is sponsored by BMW, which Medium launched in July — the new Gone portal will publish travel-related articles written by both staff writers and freelancers, and some of those will be about Marriott-related topics. As an example, the first piece is about the opening of a new hotel in Haiti. Of the 60 articles that the site will publish over four months, five will have their content approved by Marriott.

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Native advertising has a number of prominent critics, including political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who argues that it blurs the ethical line and makes readers less likely to trust media outlets. But in a world in which advertising of all kinds is declining in value rapidly, one of the few growth areas is sponsored content that is well produced and useful to readers.

Disclosure required

Does Medium go far enough in disclosing its relationship with Marriott and what that entails? Fusion blogger Felix Salmon (among others) raised that question on Twitter, pointing out that it’s difficult to tell which of the Gone pieces are sponsored just by looking at the front page — although the Haiti piece says it was sponsored at the top, and contains the sentence “Gone accompanied Marriott here to see firsthand.” But it doesn’t specifically mention that Marriott paid all the expenses for the trip.

When I asked editor-in-chief Evan Hansen about the disclosure, he said he was happy with the amount of transparency around the articles, pointing out that it is clear Marriott is sponsoring the site and had a hand in the main piece. Will that be enough to ensure that readers trust what they are reading? I don’t know. I suspect that most will just be concerned with whether the piece is interesting and/or accurate.

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That’s why native advertising is so appealing for a platform like Medium, which hosts a wide variety of both paid and unpaid content (a strategy that Williams talked about in a recent interview with Fortune). All a native ad has to do is be well-written and useful, or interesting, or somehow valuable to a reader. In other words, all of the same things that a regular piece about any other topic would have to do. And listen to what Marriott says about Medium:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”It’s got great contributors, the ability to present content in many formats. And it’s around time engaged. There’s no banner ads, there’s nothing interrupting you. It allows us to build a deeper relationship with the reader.”[/blockquote]

Focus on value

Obviously, the fact that Medium is not a traditional journalistic entity like the New York Times makes it somewhat easier for the company to experiment in this way — just as it’s easier for BuzzFeed to produce sponsored content about cats, like the popular “Dear Kitten” video that was produced by BuzzFeed’s video unit, because readers are already used to light-hearted, non-journalistic content from the site.

That said, however, why couldn’t a newspaper do something like Medium is doing with Gone and Re:Form? Provided it was as a transparent as possible about who was doing the writing, who was paying for the writing and which pieces were approved by the sponsor, it isn’t that different from the typical kinds of advertorial packages that many media outlets have been doing for years (and ironically, new-media outlets like BuzzFeed in some cases seem to be more ethical about how they approach these kinds of projects than traditional media companies are).

In fact, many newspapers use freelancer copy for their travel section so that they can get around their paper’s rules on conflicts of interest — running pieces by writers who had all their expenses covered, etc. But this is rarely mentioned, or disclosed in a tiny footnote at the bottom. Is what Medium is doing really that much worse? At least they are disclosing who sponsored the piece up front, and letting readers come to their own conclusions.