As we prepare for this week’s INMA European Conference in Berlin, we spoke to one of our featured speakers, Ebele Wybenga, a journalist who investigates the bustling intersection of journalism and advertising at the dawning of “the Editorial Age.” Wybenga discusses the opportunities of branded content.

INMA: Brand’s impact on journalism is becoming stronger. Do you see a threat to journalism here? Where exactly?

Wybenga: There are a couple of developments to watch closely. 

The first is the commercialisation of independent media. Because publishers and news media are having a hard time economically, they do more to appease advertisers. This leads to an overdose of ads and — more alarmingly —  to the stealthy infiltration of independent editorial space by commercial messages.

This has been going on for years. It started in low-level free newspapers and Web sites, but is now affecting paid legacy media. It will soon reach a saturation point where readers, viewers, and listeners will turn away.

Journalism is losing face because of this movement.

The second development is caused by the eagerness of brands to gain attention and credibility. Instead of broadcasting loud and intrusive ads, they’ve started to produce media that are worth their audience’s time. And they’re not just telling fictional or exaggerated stories. They collaborate with journalists and editors. 

Instead of talking about their company and their products, they’ve started offering high-quality content tailored to the needs and obsessions of an intelligent, influential, advertising-wary target group. That’s why we're seeing a lot of branded content with journalistic aspirations. 

Pioneering brands in this field are trying hard to be sincere and interesting instead of cunning and intrusive. This kind of content doesn’t have to be a threat to journalism as long as it’s properly labeled as coming from a brand.

INMA: What should be done to protect journalism’s independence and credibility from advertising yet allow the industry to earn its dollars at the same time?

Wybenga: I have a few recommendations. Firstly, brands shouldn’t hide in the fringes of the stories they’ve paid for. They should display their brand proudly, as a masthead. That way the public won’t be deceived, and the brand will be remembered for the high-quality media experience it delivered.

Secondly, “branded journalism” shouldn’t ever be confused with the real thing — independent journalism — although it looks similar and involves similar methods.

In the Netherlands, insurance company AEGON commissioned a special about pensions made by staff journalists of Het Financieele Dagblad, the Dutch equivalent of the Financial Times. The company claimed the result was 100% independent journalism. 

Even if the brand had no explicit editorial influence, the journalists involved wouldn’t feel free to investigate AEGON and its products “without fear or favour” in a sponsored part of their newspaper. 

This self-censorship might very well affect the non-sponsored regular news section, too, although this is hard to prove. 

Finally, journalists collaborating with brands should use their name as a mark of quality and a reassurance to the audience that the story is made in accordance with journalistic professional standards.

If journalists can vouch for the reliability of the story, they should use a byline. If their story is rewritten by someone in PR — or marketing or troubles their conscience — they ought to retract their name. That way, members of the audience know what they’re dealing with: an ad or something they can trust with more certainty. 

INMA: What, in your own words, is native advertising? Do you think it should be clearly regulated? 

Wybenga: Native advertising is the same thing as an old-fashioned advertorial. Although it might seem new in the digital world, it has a long unloved heritage in print.

Publishers are selling space to advertisers to tell their own stories, with an editorial look and feel. The worst kind of native advertising is an advertising message designed to dissolve among independent stories. This is a detrimental hidden persuasion tactic. 

Yet there’s also branded content that’s well made, timely, entertaining and useful. 

In my opinion, only stories that are of value to the audience are suitable for native ads. For publishers, native advertising is more lucrative and less irritating than banner ads, so I wouldn’t argue for a ban. 

Rather, I believe proper labeling is key. The reader must be able to tell who’s behind the message. Sponsored content should clearly be distinguished from independent content for every visitor. 

INMA: More and more surveys are proving that regular advertising (banners, pop-ups) are not effective, leaving us — the users — ad blind. New methods of advertising are being searched for, like branded content and so often-discussed native advertising. What is the future of Web advertising in your opinion, and how will it affect journalism in the long run? 

Wybenga: Banner ads are a scam. A lot of clicks are accidental and media agencies are known to charge for banners that were displayed on the invisible long end of a Web page. Have you looked at any slideshows online recently? The page will refresh with every picture to inflate pageviews and make sure more “impressions” of ads can be served.

Advertising can be useful information, but online advertising in its current form is simply tedious. It offers only little revenue to publishers while it’s damaging the user experience.

Native advertising is going to replace a great deal of the current banner bonanza. But it will become a pain in it’s own right unless boundaries are built in time.

Publishers should guard and constantly seek to improve the quality of their native advertising. They should refuse sponsored stories that are of no interest to their audience and aid brands in making compelling stories by offering editorial guidelines and best practices. 

Otherwise, the audience will turn away once again, dismayed with the advertiser and the media brand. If sponsored content isn’t labeled as such, it’s not just the credibility of the advertiser that’s at stake. The resulting lack of public trust in the media will be devastating for journalism.