The line between ad-sales and editorial at some fashion websites is getting about as thin as the sheer tops they're showing for spring. Digital natives including Refinery29 and PureWow and magazine sites like Harper's Bazaar and Elle are enlisting their editors to produce content on behalf of advertisers. In some cases, editors even model the advertiser's products.
Editors' involvement helps ads resonate with readers, the publishers say. "Readers are bombarded with crappy ads," said Justin Stefano, co-founder and co-CEO of Refinery29. "This is a positive marriage between advertising and editorial."
But the labeling varies, from "sponsored" to more opaque terms like "dedicated." And editors' involvement doesn't make it any harder for readers to mistake an ad for, well, editorial. "The minute your editor creates content for every advertiser you lose credibility," said Matt Rice, associate publisher at Style.com, part of the Conde Nast publishing empire.
Style.com editors approve the editorial-style "native" ads that others produce for the site but do not create it or appear in it, Mr. Rice said. Editors at Conde Nast as a whole, where other brands include Vogue and Glamour, do not work on advertising content, according to the company.
But even there, editors once appeared in cover ads showing their magazines' content on Microsoft Windows 8. Conde said those weren't paid Microsoft ads, just in-house promotions that the company happened to produce in coordination with a huge Microsoft ad buy.
Such gymnastic explanations are less common online. "Advertisers come to us because they want content," said Mary Kate McGrath, editor in chief of woman's fashion and lifestyle site PureWow.
"We give it to editors because they're the experts," she added.
Native ads comprised 70% of PureWow's revenues last year, with editors creating all of the custom content pieces, according to Ms. McGrath. Old Navy, for example, tapped PureWow's editorial staff to produce a video and short post promoting new pants.
Web publishers' openness is encouraged by fierce competition for ad dollars, given a glut of online inventory and the general perception that consumers ignore banner ads. Natives ads are also becoming more important as readers turn toward mobile devices, where traditional advertising seems even less effective. Marketers are expected to spend $2.29 billion on sponsored content, including native ads, this year, a 20.5% increase over 2013, according to eMarketer. By 2017, the tactic is forecasted to hit $3.2 billion.
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In some ways you'd expect fashion sites to be at the vanguard, given the category's cozy relationship with advertisers in print. Fashion marketers keep careful track of the number of credits they get in magazines' photo spreads, sometimes complaining or shifting dollars elsewhere if they feel ignored.
But the native ad craze has taken hold more quickly among business-to-business advertisers like IBM and Cisco, on sites such as Mashable and Mental_Floss, where editors do native content for advertisers. Fashion advertisers are now warming up to it -- especially if editors are involved.
"They want to know about it," said George Janson, managing partner and director of print for GroupM. Right now only a very small portion of their budgets going towards it, he said. "They're very particular about their image and creative assets," he said.
That particularity makes editors' expert involvement reassuring. And if readers know an editor is behind a native ad, they might take it as an implied endorsement, according to Mr. Janson. That's also attractive to advertisers, he added.
About 60% of all of Refinery29's programs have some content-creation element, Mr. Stefano said, though some of it is created by freelancers. Editors also model advertisers' products. "When it's a brand our editors love, they can actually appear in the content," he said.
That increases the likelihood that readers won't gloss over advertising content, according to Troy Young, president of Hearst Digital, publisher of titles including Harper's Bazaar and Elle. Digital advertising has "fundamentally changed" what brands say to consumers, he explained, because the content needs to be great. There's simply too much noise and distraction online.
Editorial involvement varies at Hearst, from consulting on a broader advertising program to creating lists on behalf of an advertiser on Harper's Bazaar. The tactic isn't limited to women's sites either. Editors from Hearst's men's group -- which includes Esquire, Car and Driver, Road and Track and Popular Mechanics -- consulted on an advertising program for Mini that's currently running across the magazines' sites.
When Hearst magazine's digital editors create content for an advertiser, they're producing something substantive for readers, Mr. Young said. "It's something they want to read," he said.