Has The Times gone native?
Tuesday's edition of The Times saw the Murdoch-owned paper run a selection of rather camouflaged BT Sport ads alongside their football coverage. Has the paper embraced native advertising? asks Raymond Snoddy.
Did I just see that? Was that the first native advertisement ever published in The Times and placed there without any announcement or fuss? A bit like Sharon Stone's leg-crossing in Basic Instinct, if you weren't really paying attention the moment might have gone for ever.
Look again at page 66 and 67 in Tuesday's Times and you will agree that there really is something odd going on, even if it is more than a touch discrete. The exhibit in question is an interview with The Beast, Manchester City's talismanic goal-scorer Alvaro Negredo, and accompanying embellishments.
It is a little unusual to be told in the body of the article that City's away game against Tottenham will be "televised live by BT Sport." Usually such information is given at the bottom of an article in italics.
On its own, only total newspaper nerds would think very much about that. Much more prominently however, the article is interrupted by a box in a larger font in red ink, separated from the text by the thinnest of rules.
"Watch Tottenham v Manchester City tomorrow exclusively live at 7pm on BT Sport 1," it exhorts. And then, to be extra helpful, there is another box at the end of the article setting out the five Premiership matches due to appear on BT Sport in February.
Was James Ducker's interview with Negredo effectively a sponsored article? The signs are subtle but that seems to be exactly the point about native advertising - that the ads should almost merge with the content and become virtually indistinguishable from it.
Eroding the separation between the independence of the editorial and the commercialism of the advertising is a big step"
The question is, has The Times embarked on a native advertising campaign as an act of policy and page 66 represents an initial toe in the water to gauge public reaction - if any? Or is this just a freelance effort from its commercial department, a rush of blood to the head, taking advantage of an opportunity to increase advertising yield in a difficult month.
The irony is obvious. Although BSkyB and News UK are now in different corporate structures, Sky is in a deadly battle with BT for sports rights and football viewers. Strange indeed that BT should be able to exhort Times readers to watch - and by implication sign up for its service - beyond the more passive approach of a conventional advertisement.
The signs are that this was a bit of a freelance effort rather than a huge News UK policy shift - at least for now - and even more bizarrely BT insists it did not pay for the favourable treatment.
Mike Darcey, the News UK chief executive, doesn't seem to have known about this small innovation in advance. But when he spotted it, the same obvious question popped into his head: Is this native advertising?
What is known these days as native advertising, though it is not all that different from advertorials or sponsored supplements, is clearly a rising force. It has oozed from online and mobile until it may be starting to lap around the ankles of paid-for print editions.
But The Times?
Eroding the separation between the independence of the editorial and the commercialism of the advertising is a big step. It should not be casually, carelessly undertaken as part of an opportunist response to an advertiser's tactical needs.
There has to be a policy. It has to be thought through and explained and everyone involved, not least the readers, have to know exactly what is going on. The rules and limits on the reach of native advertising have to be openly set out.
Try to con the readers of The Times at your peril. Here the approach of the New York Times is illuminating.
For native advertising to be effective readers have to confuse it with editorial content"
The paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, has introduced native advertising, first to the newspaper's online site, and will then include its mobile offerings. He promised in a letter to employees that there would be "strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads," which would be handled by the advertising department.
The paid pages would also have a blue border to make clear to readers exactly what they were. The aim is a simple one - to increase digital revenues.
The New York Times' plan hasn't gone down all that well with media commentators. Media critic Bob Garfield, who co-hosts a New York radio show on the media, recently highlighted the dilemmas involved.
For native advertising to be effective readers have to confuse it with editorial content. If you clearly demarcate the two then the ethical problems diminish, but the effectiveness almost
Tom Foremski was rather more blunt.
"Native advertising is the world's worst idea and I can't believe the New York Times management is so gullible and clueless to agree to its publication," he says, adding the paper had sold its soul for a pile of beans.
It may be difficult to put this genie back in the bottle. The Federal Trade Commission in the US found that 73 per cent of American online publishers were already offering native advertising, while a further 17 per cent were thinking of joining them.
Twitter is already earning money with the help of promoted tweets and last September the company bought MoPub, which specialises in mobile native advertising. Everywhere you look there is likely to be more and more native advertising.
Established publishers in the UK should be wary about going down the US route. It is the independence of their content that will ultimately ensure their survival and it will be naïve rather than native to imagine readers will not notice the difference.
Branding associated with paid content or disguised advertisements will inevitably spill over and taint "legitimate" articles.
Who knows why The Times decided to insert a promo for BT Sport into an interview with Negredo, the Man City front-man. But it could be the first snowflake, so it's time to launch Native Advertising Watch for the national press - just in case.