Contently’s Shane Snow Reveals What Really Worries Him About Native Ads

What does the bridge between journalism and advertising look like to the guy who’s building it? Last week, Contently cofounder Shane Snow took part in a live chat on Poynter’s website to share his thoughts on the the past and future of brand publishing and sponsored content. Below features some of the highlights from the rapid-fire, hour-long chat, including an honest look at the native ad industry and plenty of Shane’s signature smiley-face emoticons.

A Chat With Contently Co-Founder Shane Snow

Contently Co-Founder Shane Snow, with Co-Founder Dave Goldberg

Contently Co-Founder Shane Snow, with Co-Founder Dave Goldberg

Contently Co-Founder Shane Snow, with Co-Founder Dave Goldberg

How are sponsored content and branded content and native advertising alike? Is one term preferred?

This is a good question, because there’s a lot of misnomering going on in this industry. Is misnomering a word? But here’s how I define them:

Branded content, or brand publishing, is what I call when a brand, corporation, or other organization publishes content.

Sponsored content is when a brand pays someone else to put its name on that other site’s content. For example, if Ford pays Forbes to put its name on an article online. Sometimes with sponsored content, the brand is actually creating the content, and sometimes it’s simply paying for the media company to do it. I call this the “baseball stadium” model.

And then, finally, native advertising is when a brand pays to put an advertisement somewhere where the ad “fits” the experience of the publication without interruption. Usually this expense is advertising a story, such as a sponsored post, and that’s where the confusion in naming comes in.

To recap: native advertising is when you spend money to get traffic to an unobtrusive ad, sponsored content is when you pay to support a story somewhere, and brand publishing is when you create your own content and publish it yourself.

How and what role do each of the different media types play? For example, when is text the appropriate medium? When are photos the right medium? When are videos and animations the right medium? When are infographics and slide decks the right medium?

The rule of thumb for what medium to choose, in my opinion, is how are you going to tell the best story possible? It’s the same conversation that ought to happen in traditional newsrooms. Visual content is often the best way to tell a story, but it really, really depends. The one thing I’ll say is I see a lot of infographic abuse, and that’s not cool. 🙂

One of my favorite journalism professors always said that “good writing speeds you along.” I think that should be the aim of storytelling no matter the medium, and that informs the medium you should choose. How do you speed the reader along while helping them retain the message?

I used to see a lot of potential in native ads, but now I feel like it cheapens stories for brands and media. What do you think?

There is definitely potential for really great experiences and really bad experiences. The fortunate thing is, if the content sucks or is cheap or deceptive, it’s not going to be very effective for the brand in the long run. So there’s a natural incentive—especially because of social media—to behave with the audience’s best intentions in mind. That doesn’t mean that all native advertisers are going to do a good job, especially initially.

But the thing I worry about the most is when native ads become automated and programmatic. The advertiser and audience fit is so important. And if scummy direct marketing ads start getting stuck in story wells, that’s going to be rather terrible. Just like with regular publishing, there needs to be a human touch for the content and the fit to be good.

How do you convince the editorial team that branded content is a good idea?

It’s easy to convince the finance people, because you can charge a premium for the real estate. But for the editorial team, you really have to give them the authority to veto content that they feel betrays the readers or doesn’t fit the publication itself. That’s the guiding star, and the editorial team ought to be empowered to make that call. Otherwise, sales people are very good at selling things that we might not want sold. If that makes sense.

Do journalists ever have a conflict of conscience when it comes to writing for brands? If so, how do you mitigate this?

In the old days, we all wrote for essentially “mutual funds” of advertisers. If we weren’t comfortable with some of the advertisers in our magazines, we writers just turned a blind eye. In many cases, today’s brand content is essentially a single advertiser asking for the same stories, although sometimes it’s just advertorial. If you don’t believe in the brand, you shouldn’t write for them. If you don’t respect the brand, you shouldn’t work for them. And no matter what, if you practice good ethics and are transparent about your intentions as a journalist before, during, and after doing work for corporations, no one should fault you.

There’s a bit of a double standard here, actually, where no one yells at the photographer who shoots a commercial or wedding on the weekend and then shows up to shoot photos for the newspaper on Monday. But somehow it’s wrong for a writer to do the same thing? I don’t think the talent should be punished for trying to make ends meet, as long as the talent isn’t letting its other work compromise its ethics or coverage elsewhere. Often we see journalists who write for the business section at the paper write about wine or football for the brands—and no one should have a problem with that!

What cost model do you recommend for native advertising and sponsored content?

I think a model based on active engagement is most fair to advertisers, so you pay based on how much people consume. However, it’s easier in the ad world to price things apples to apples with ads, so I think having the brand pay per click on the native ads and story bugs to the posts is a good model for the sponsor. I think CPM is silly, though.

From a content perspective, what kind of access are brands getting? For example, I’ve seen Coke and Popchips have “roving reporters” on red carpets (paid for spots). Is this something that will become more prevalent in the entertainment industry?

Yes, we will definitely see more of that. It is harder for brands to get access to events without paying than it is for news organizations. But as brands get bigger audiences, that will shift. Red Bull, for example, has a magazine circulation of 2.7 million, and they employ freelancers from The New York Times and elsewhere—so those guys definitely get good access. That’s one thing a great journalist can uniquely do for a brand publisher, though, is hustle to get access to great story opportunities. 🙂

Read the entire chat over at Poynter.

Contently arms brands with the tools and talent to become great content creators. Learn more.

Image by

Get better at your job right now.

Read our monthly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories