Native Advertising Offers Associations New Revenue Opportunities
By James McNeil, President and Publisher, Information, Inc.

By the very nature of associations' missions, most strive to be at the epicenter of information sharing and dissemination in the industries or specialized fields they represent. By providing a source of unfiltered and unbiased reporting on issues, they hope to be rewarded with the trust and respect of their members.

A new revenue-generating opportunity for associations — despite concerns by some — is very consistent with that goal. The recent trend toward “native advertising” in news media can be a new opportunity for associations to offer new types of valuable content to its members and drive non-dues revenue. The term native advertising refers to a kind of digital or print advertising in which advertisers present content they create alongside news-source-generated editorial content. The word “native” refers to the content’s appearance, which matches that of other material presented by the media platform.

Some traditionalists are wary of native advertising and suggest that it can damage the integrity of the news source and therefore lead to diminished trust among readers. Associations should not be dissuaded from considering native advertising; however, because with care, it can co-exist and even complement content generated by subject-matter experts and staff.

From an online advertiser’s perspective, online banner ads have become an annoyance that readers often ignore. Therefore, marketers are trying new approaches to deliver their messages to targeted audiences in a way that will actually be consumed. Native advertising has proven to be effective in that regard.

Successful adopters have employed a variety of mechanisms to effectively integrate paid content that showcases an advertiser’s knowledge, expertise and/or market experience in content that is truly useful to the audience. Examples include case studies, personal interviews with customers, branded white papers and proprietary market research results presented in an editorial format.

These strategies allow marketers to effectively reach specific readers. For this, they are willing to pay handsome premiums to the publisher. Associations, in turn, have a pressing need for new and diversified sources of revenue, but some worry that by blurring the line between paid and editorial content, native advertising could inadvertently compromise an association’s reputation for being unbiased.

Despite the chorus of protest from editorial purists, many associations are successfully using this model while effectively managing their reputation as objective information providers — as long as the paid content they accept provides value to the reader and is clearly and definitively identified to the audience. Association publishers must also have in place strong standards and rules that delineate what is acceptable and what is not in terms of native advertising. Allowing a marketer to run whatever material it wants simply because it paid the association to do so would be a mistake. It is imperative that board members are confident that the association’s rules on this issue provide the appropriate level of brand protection, and they must be prepared to hold staff accountable for policing them.

Highly respected publications like the New York Times, The Washington Post and Forbes are at the forefront of this opportunistic trend. Among associations, the American Society of Industrial Security (ASIS) International — the leading organization for security professionals, with more than 38,000 members worldwide — has established itself as an early adopter of the model. I recently spoke with Michael Gips, vice president of publishing, who offered his perspective.

“Traditional advertising revenues have been shrinking by double-digit percentages throughout the publishing industry in the past few years,” he noted. “Clients want to be seen as thought leaders and content creators, not passive advertisers. They are looking to create compelling surveys, white papers, Webinars, case studies and so on.”

Gips emphasized that the strongest asset of ASIS International’s flagship publication, Security Management, is its reputation for editorial integrity.

“We have been able to take advantage of the shift toward native advertising by creating a clear separation between our own editorial product and our sponsored content,” he added. “The core Security Management editorial staff has no direct connection with sponsored content. That function is operated by another group on our publishing team. We ensure excellence, however, by having experienced editors do all research, writing and editing. All sponsored content is clearly labeled as such to distinguish it from the magazine’s own editorial [content].”

That carefully crafted protocol appears to have paid off. “So far,” Gips reported, “we haven’t encountered any confusion or complaints. Readers view the sponsored content as a value-add because it is professionally researched and substantively written.”

In all native advertising, advertisers have final say over their content. But in addition to the approach taken by Security Management, some news organizations accept content directly from advertisers. The content is then reviewed by staff to ensure it meets the media outlet’s standards, and the staff works with the advertiser to create the final content.

ASIS International’s native advertising strategy is a prime example of how associations not only can boost their revenue but also actually generate additional value for members by partnering with selective advertisers. That is because the perspective that marketers can offer is often a unique and valuable one — one that is simply expressed through a different lens.

The bottom line: Without a consistent stream of advertising revenues to offset the costs of developing and delivering their own quality content, it may become impossible for many associations to achieve their missions to be the definitive sources of high-value information and intelligence that members expect. Native advertising can keep that from happening. And media experts believe that native advertising will only continue to grow. More than 60 percent of respondents in the Association of National Advertisers’ 2015 Native Advertising Survey said they expected to allocate more of their marketing budget to the option this year.

As traditional advertising dollars shrink, associations have an amazing opportunity to capture replacement revenue by integrating native advertising options — revenue that might even help rescue legacy association publications that are at risk of folding — while keeping their credibility with readers intact at the same time. For that to happen, however, associations must create and manage black-and-white standards, partner with like-minded advertisers and rigorously manage those relationships.

  James McNeil is president and publisher at Information, Inc., a digital content publishing firm that delivers high-impact, customized content solutions to trade and professional associations, corporations and government agencies. McNeil has more than 30 years of experience in publishing, marketing and operations in corporate and not-for-profit organizations; having most recently served in executive director roles and as a provider of high-value services to the association marketplace.

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