Plenty of companies have the money to reserve column inches in major media outlets for their branded content. But few of them are aware that it is the production process behind native content that determines its success. So what follows here is a generous portion of targeted advice for native advertising success – based on experience.
After having spent quite a while developing a native advertising concept for the biggest Danish financial media, Børsen, and kick-starting several native advertising campaigns for costumers as commercial editor and a consultant, I have learned a thing or two about native advertising.
One of the most important learnings is that getting a native advertising campaign to work requires the right production process. It’s not about the number of native ads, the exposure of them or even the ever so desired CTR. It’s the process.
Thinking about all the branded content I have ever done (and it’s quite a lot) the same seems to be true for most types of branded content – i.e. advertorials and other types of storytelling—regardless of the size of the costumer.
In my career, I have had the opportunity to create many types of content for companies of all sizes; ranging from high end car manufacturers, banks and airlines, to a man who sells fly nets. So I’ll say it again: It’s the process.
So now I have said “it’s the process” a couple of times. So by now, you must be pretty sure that I mean it. So let me explain how I view the ideal process behind sponsored content and partnerships.
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The typical experience with a client who wants to run a campaign with sponsored content is that they want it - and they want it RIGHT NOW. They have a campaign budget and a product/message that needs to go out in May, so they call in the beginning of May to book a native campaign for… the beginning of May.
This is a bad idea.
Now, I do not have background in marketing or advertising, but after having worked with quite a few marketing people, I am starting to understand why clients do this. The formats they used to purchase are banners, one-page inserts, a pre-roll video, a whole page ad, etc. In other words: Hit, and Run. The production time for this campaign material is fairly short and often created internally by the companies. Often, they were able to turn in their materials one day, and the next day, it was running in a major news outlet. Boom!
That is not how native advertising works. That is, if you want to take advantage of the format – not ruining it. Native advertising is strategic storytelling, and you cannot just do that overnight. Usually, at least if you want to advertise in a major news media, you have to activate the entire journalistic toolbox, in the form of research, angling, interview, writing process, etc. At the same time, the production of every single piece should be aligned with the company’s strategic goals.
In other words, a story sponsored by Shell about the general energy challenge, the prevalence of green energy and the need for alternate sources of energy is, of course, aligned with the fact that part of Shell’s brand mission is to be viewed as an organization who thinks of the environment. And the fact that they have created a green energy division and invested in wind power.
Always ask yourself WHY you want to write this exact story. Spend time thinking through the stories and the story lines. What do you want to tell, and why do you want to tell it? Get a good communicator and writer to create the stories. Maybe someone from outside your brand. Listen to this person as a representative of the outside world.
Spend about a month planning and developing the storyline. This is incredibly healthy, rather than just pushing through a marketing plan because you are behind schedule. In that case you might as well not spend the money on native, but buy a banner ad instead.
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It is not that I do not like marketers. But when it comes to Native Advertising, their roles have to fade into the background at some point. That time comes when the campaign has been booked and the production is about to begin. Yes, I know that marketing knows which products to focus on – or what topic to focus on, depending on the purpose of the campaign.
Of course, this has to be taken seriously; otherwise there would not be a campaign. But once everyone is in agreement on the above points, the marketing team should be asked to withdraw to the background while letting the campaign continue, with the close cooperation between the skilled writer/communicator and those professionals and/or cases that can create “the good story.”
At this point it is important that the company is available with sources, cases, and strategic communications contacts, so that the person writing the story has a nuanced, human, toolbox to dive into. You can truly create more authentic, human, fascinating, an engaging stories if you have a super-skilled expert-nerd writing about the new and exciting alternative materials being used in the production of BMW’s newest models, than if you are just sent a fact-sheet from marketing. Which brings me to my next point..
If you, as a company, think that you can “order 6 good stories for the native campaign in xx media”, and then just lean back, relax, and wait for the results, you are in for a surprise. Best-case scenario is that you are wrong. Worst case scenario is that you are wasting a lot of money and a lot of time. You cannot grab good stories out of thin air. They come as a result of a long process, and are dependent on how much you, as a client, engage yourself, and your internal resources (and maybe even an ambassador network), in bringing the good stories to life.
Give access to anyone and everything that may be available to deliver facts, inspiration, anecdotes, advice, etc. The stories that come out of pitiful, boring product talk are often indifferent nonsense about how “Lisa tried the new xx from xx and everything got better,” or hopelessly unimportant “advice” about brushing your teeth, lawnmowers, or IT solutions. Give us something real; an awesome story with real knowledge. Something fascinating or relevant – that is what native advertising is about. It is ok if it is also about your product, but please: Make sure it actually creates value to the reader and is told in an interesting way. Which brings us nicely along to my 4th process point:
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Now you might be writhing with worry about how cumbersome and tiring it can be to do native advertising, I do have one point to calm you down: You do not actually have to do very much to get really good results. That is, if you do it right.
In my experience, too many stories from the same client, in the same media, is not necessarily a good thing. On the contrary, you are likely to tire your readers with several stories after another from the same brand, especially when it comes to native advertising in news outlets. It is almost as if the stories start to cannibalize each other by the end. Instead, you can strive to use the time and money you would have spent to create six stories, and instead create two. Just make sure they are well thought out on all parameters. Think about whether, or how, the story:
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Native advertising can be kind of a fluffy thing when it comes to measuring, especially if you’re the type of person who likes a cold-hard ROI. Usually we spend a lot of time looking at impressions, CTR (Click through rates), leads, sales, etc., when we’re discussing traditional banner campaigns.
CTR is definitely still interesting and relevant for native campaigns, because it indicates how many people are showing interest by clicking into the article. But that is where I personally believe the relevance stops. Because what does it help if readers click on it, if they click right back out again? That would actually be the worst, because then they did not feel that they got any value for their click. Maybe they even got straight up annoyed.
So I think it is far more relevant to look at the factor known as “Time Spent”; that is, how long they spend reading the article. I have seen people spend several minutes reading a sponsored article, and I view that as a great success. That means we created something the reader can use and find value in.
‘Time Spent’ is also a fluffy parameter
On the one hand: ‘Time Spent’ is also a fluffy parameter. Because it does not measure what they think of your brand after they have read the article – and whether they are purchasing from you. We do not know anything about that. We can only do that if we keep tracking the customers as they move onto your site and watch them click and purchase something, say, a ticket or a toothbrush. However, we cannot always see that.
On the other hand: Time spent can be very high when it comes to native, and that means that the readers are actually choosing to spend several minutes of their valuable time - with your brand! How often does that happen? When do people do that voluntarily on any given day, when they had actually originally planned to visit a media site to read something completely different? (say, like the news)
What we are also noticing is that readers often read more sponsored articles from the same brand once they have clicked in. Again, I view that as a success. It indicates that they like your content. I will even venture so far as to say that at the very minimum, it gives you higher brand awareness among your readers. Perhaps even a greater interest and respect, depending on which stories you are creating and how good you are at engaging and fascinating your readers, as opposed to just applauding yourself and your products.
My point here is: When it comes to Native Advertising, it is difficult to work with very hard numbers as a parameter for success. You can incorporate links in your native article that will lead readers on to your site, and if you do in a way that creates value (I can discuss that in-depth another time), you can easily get people to your site, and from there maybe get them to actually take action. However, in my point of view, native advertising works best as a part of a content strategy that seeks to create brand awareness and likability. Though, I am sure you can find differing opinions.
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Earlier, I wrote that I would explain why I believe it is so important to focus on the process behind native advertising. If you have made it this far, I’m really freakin’ thankful. Maybe you are one of those people who are as passionate about learning more about this format as I am.
Anyway: My hypothesis is that we will far too easily water out native advertising if we do not respect that it is a special format that comes to life under special conditions. It is not a product ad. It is not an advertorial. It is not banners.
It should not just “look as much like the other stuff in the newspaper as possible.”
Native advertising is strategic storytelling. It is good stories communicated with ideal respect for the reader and for the identity and the content of the media in which is brought. It is an honest format, which should never cheat its way to more readers through link-bait articles, or by pretending to be editorial content. Native stories should be of a high enough quality that the readers choose to read them, even though they can tell that a company is the sender.
Most importantly: Native must never disturb or take priority over the editorial content. Native advertising survives on a strong editorial identity and journalistic credibility in the responsible medium. If you slack on credibility and integrity, native cannot survive. It will die. As will the media. And there goes a great business model. So do it well. Please.
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