For many people in the industry, native advertising revealed its true potential back in 2014 in The New York Times’ influential branded content campaign “Women Inmates” for the drama series “Orange is the New Black.”
The NYT sponsored content piece, which was produced by Deziel (NYT’s first editor of branded content) and her team, in partnership with Netflix, offered a new and unique blend of marketing content with editorial ideas and design.
Below are some of the questions posed to Deziel by the event attendees, as well as Valérie Arnould (Deputy Director, Digital Revenue Network, WAN-IFRA) and Coralie Vrancken (Director Revenue Management and Digital Operations, Rossel Advertising, Belgium). The answers have been edited for brevity.
What are the best practices in how a publisher signals branded content/native advertising on its website?
Melanie Deziel: The best practice, in line with the US legal regulations, is to ensure the markings of branded content are clear and prominent so as to be abundantly transparent with the readers.
Publishers varied terminology to address branded content including native ads, sponsored content, promoted content, and partner content. The most widely used one, however, is sponsored content, and the reason it works well is because most lay people can understand what it means. The word “sponsor” immediately lets a reader know that the publisher and brand are involved in some sort of a paid relationship.
However, running tests with your audience can also prove beneficial in identifying what kind of labeling they are most comfortable with.
Should a publisher build an in-house brand studio or outsource the talent?
Deziel: The answer to this question depends on several factors.
If a news publisher is not equipped to use its existing staff of journalists to contribute to branded content production, then they must seek outside help in the form of either a studio or freelancers or partnerships with another content organisation.
If a publisher has the funds and can bring in enough revenue to compensate for it, then having an in-house branded content team is a good way to ensure a steady flow of quality content and consistent voices and tones, which is not possible when outsourcing talent. However, there’s no denying that it is an expense.
If you’re trying to decide if a studio is the way to go, I suggest starting out with freelancers and having one dedicated person from within the organisation to spearhead the content and ensure quality. If the freelancers seem to work well with the brand, they could be hired as full time employees later.
You may have an in-house brand studio but a publisher knows how to serve its audiences’ needs best. The publisher is best positioned to create high quality content that the audience will read and engage with. Hence, there’s value in controlling the creative princess – whether it is with a brand studio or with outsourced help.
Is it advisable to appoint a journalist as the head of the studio?
Deziel: The question you really want to ask is — what is the type of content you’re looking to create? If it’s journalistic content that involves lengthy reportage, interviews, data and research, a journalist heading the brand studio is a perfect fit.
However, if it’s an organisation more inclined to lifestyle or humour or satire, journalistic skills are not going to be the best suited for that kind of environment. Here, you are probably looking for someone into design or video.
That said, regardless of the kind of content you’re creating, having the team lead with an editorial background tends to be valuable because this person would have worked as an editor or a journalist and would be great at managing deadlines, working with multiple creators, and having the processes in place.
What is the right pitch for a news brand when talking to potential advertisers? What are the differentiating elements that count for advertisers?
Deziel: In the nascent stages of native advertising, the pitch was heavily reliant on the size of the audience since the exposure would be directly proportional. Over the last 5-6 years, that is no longer a key differentiator — at least not in the US market.
This shift from quantity to quality is largely because it is very easy and cheap to buy eyeballs now. So, simply being able to reach a lot of people is something most brands can do on their own.
Depending on the organisation, the pitch could be about the depth of engagement with the audience, the niche of your expertise, or a case study of the results of past content. Having employees who have won accolades can also help a publisher set itself apart. Having worked with a particular brand or similar brands in the past gives the publisher an upper hand too.
Do you see risk opportunities as publishers move part of their content behind paywalls?
Deziel: This is not a universally good or bad thing. There are ways in which you can use the paywall to your advantage, either way.
Putting content behind a paywall limits reach. If the goal is to have great reach, putting sponsored content behind paywalls is counter productive.
However, if the subscribers are the brand’s most engaged readers, and the publisher is not going for great reach but focusing on the quality of engagement, there is a viable pitch here.
If a lot of the content is going behind a paywall and the sponsored content is free, it actually creates more demand and more audience for it. So, if earlier, a reader had 100 articles to choose from on a given day and now there’s only 10 and one of them is sponsored, there’s a much greater chance that your audience is going to see and engage with that content because the pool of options becomes smaller. This sponsored content will, of course, have to be in line with the quality standards of the publisher’s other offerings.
There’s hope, regardless of the path you end up taking for your sponsored offering.
What are the best KPIs to assess the performance of native advertising campaigns?
Deziel: When thinking about how to measure the success of a campaign, it is a discussion you must have with brands up front. KPIs generally fall into one of three buckets.
Awareness KPI: This is top of the funnel where the brand is just looking for reach, impressions and page views.
Engagement KPI: This category goes beyond garnering eyeballs and calls for metrics that indicate people are engaging with the content.
Conversion KPI: This KPI calls for a step beyond engagement — whether it is scheduling a call, making a purchase, downloading content or signing up for newsletters. It requires the reader to make a call to action.
What advice would you give to local or hyperlocal publishers, who have a lower budget, to create outstanding native advertising campaigns?
Deziel: The primary reason brands are approaching local and hyperlocal publishers is because they are looking to connect with the local audience.
Small scale publishers might not have the budget to create a 10-episode video series in a week, but it is important to note the audience might not necessarily be looking for that either.
It’s about leaning into what you do best because that’s the value you have for your audience. That’s the value you know your advertisers are looking for from you.
On occasion, when a brand might try to compete with a big, international publisher, it is best to steer the conversation back to the agreed-upon achievable goals.
How can publishers guarantee that their branded content offering is the same high quality as the regular content they produce?
Deziel: It comes down to providing the readers with content that will add value to their lives. Nobody likes seeing ads, but we all love valuable brand content. For instance, nobody objects to the recipe instructions accompanying an instant cake mix box or an appliance manual.
Adding reputable and trusted sources to your content makes it valuable to readers.
Often, in a branded content scenario, publishers’ instinct is to rely exclusively on sources from the brand, which can and should be done, but having outside sources is just as important to give your work credibility.
Another important thing is to ensure the content is compelling and interesting and look for a source of tension, to hook the audience: Why should the audience care about the content? What’s at stake for them in this conversation? What are the benefits?
Publishers must also ensure the content offering is unique because often branded content has similar messages across brands.
This can be an awkward conversation, but an important one. If your content doesn’t have unique elements, it will be impossible to get consumers to care.
Sponsored content in general is more of an art than a science in many cases. Publishers and brands must have open and deep conversations to set the tone for the output.