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Real people, real stories: How governments can use native advertising to connect with the public

May 11, 2022

Norway got through COVID-19 better than most countries. The mountainous Nordic country of 5.4 million suffered fewer than 3,000 deaths during the two-plus years that the pandemic raged. It was one of the earliest countries to drop restrictions and it has topped Bloomberg’s monthly Covid Resilience Ranking four times.

As well as Norway did comparatively, the country still suffered over the long course of the pandemic. In particular, some segments of the population caught the virus at much higher rates than others. At one point, nearly half of everyone testing positive for the coronavirus in Norway came from a foreign background.

This presented a problem for the Norwegian Directorate of Health (Helsedirektoratet). 

The Directorate wanted to convey the importance of social distancing to immigrant communities. Although Norwegians as a whole have among the highest levels of trust in the government in the world, the same cannot necessarily be said of immigrants to the country. Health officials knew they needed to build trust in the government’s corona strategies among these communities, but how?

skaadinnHenriette Skådinn

The Directorate of Health turned to its agency partner Mindshare. Henriette Skådinn, Mindshare’s client lead for the Directorate of Health, recommended that the health officials use a peer-to-peer approach to spread its social distancing message. Building off the success of previous campaigns, the Directorate and Mindshare turned to native advertising.

Real people, real stories

“One of the most important goals with native advertising is to create greater knowledge and really be able to expand on a topic,” Skådinn recalls. “We’ve seen that when we use real people and tell real stories, it often generates much higher awareness than many other ad formats. In this particular case, we didn’t want something that was going to feel intrusive or feel like the government was telling people what to do. We needed something more peer to peer, something more personal.”

Working closely with Schibsted Partnerstudio, the content marketing division of Norway’s largest media company, the Directorate and Mindshare landed on a strategy of using the real stories of members of the immigrant communities to convey the message that social gatherings should be avoided during the pandemic.

To get these communities on board with social distancing, they needed to hear about its benefits in their own language – both literally and figuratively. The result was a series of five articles published on Norway’s largest news site, VG.no, that were available in six languages: Norwegian, English, Polish, Somali, Urdu and Arabic.

Mikaela-DSC06317 (1) (1)Mikaela Folkestad

“It was quite hard for the government to reach different minorities in the Norwegian community,” Schibsted Partnerstudio CEO Mikaela Folkestad says. “If you want to reach a certain audience, you have to meet them where they are and deliver your messaging how they want it.”

The Directorate’s social distancing recommendations took the form of personal stories, like that of Djamel, a local Muslim leader who developed a deep appreciation of nature when he was no longer able to gather with his community in the mosque, and Oktawian, a migrant worker from Poland who was willing to do everything he could to help end quarantine measures sooner so that he could travel to see his daughter.

Skådinn said these “less preachy” personal stories helped convey the importance of social distancing better than any direct governmental message could.

Native advertising for governmental bodies

Mindshare’s Henriette Skådinn and Schibsted’s Mikeala Folkestad will share their top learnings from their collaboration with the Norwegian Directorate of Health in a joint presentation at the 2022 Native Advertising DAYS conference, taking place 13-15 June in Copenhagen, Denmark.

They will share their top ten learnings and give insight into how their unique collaboration delivered powerful messaging to the Norwegian people and how the scalability of their approach can help other governmental bodies can change lives through knowledge.

See their presentation in person or stream it on demand by purchasing a ticket here


"During the pandemic, we really learnt that we need to have a lot more diversity both with who is telling those stories and who are reaching,” she says. “Native advertising is a unique way to communicate as a government. When you collectively raise the knowledge level amongst the public, it's for the greater good. Trying to do that with a three-second ad on Facebook or something similar is not very easy.”

Unlike other campaigns that are measured in terms of clicks, pageviews and brand awareness, the effectiveness of the Norwegian government’s COVID-19 communication strategy can also be measured in human terms. According to a media researcher at the University of Oslo, the government’s overall approach to informing the public about the pandemic “may have saved lives”.

“Information first, not brand first”

Folkestad says that delivering governmental recommendations through real people will only work if the audience can connect with them.

“It’s about the story but it’s also more than that. We had to find cases that were really relatable,” she says. “That’s why this campaign was so effective and why the Norwegian government thought that native advertising was an interesting way to approach a problem that was really hard to solve for them.”

Pandemic safety has naturally dominated much of the government’s health messaging over the past few years, but the Norwegian Directorate of Health has also used native advertising to educate the public on issues like nutrition, tobacco and mental health. Skådinn has worked with the Directorate for the past five years and says the health officials deserve credit for having the courage to “give up control of their voice to a degree they’re not used to” and letting others sort of speak on their behalf, using what Skådinn calls "borrowed voices". 

Despite some initial misgivings, native advertising and branded content are now a core part of the Directorate’s overall communications strategy.

“Our investment in native advertising has grown in the past few years because of the effects that we see that it has,” Skådinn says. “Content marketing has been one of the areas where we've really been able to communicate with the public by telling the real stories of real people with real experiences.”

Her collaborator Folkestad agrees, saying that when it comes to governmental messaging, “the real people approach is better because it's more relatable.”

“If you're selling a product, you want the brand to be really visible,” Folkestad explains. “But for the government, you can focus on the story and the brand is secondary. It’s information first, not brand first.”

Both Folkestad and Skådinn acknowledge that Norwegians’ high levels of trust may make governmental native advertising campaigns more successful there than elsewhere. But Folkestad says that even though “Norway is quite lucky”, other governments could also find success through native advertising.

"As a government, you want to spread knowledge. It’s easier to do that through native advertising and stories that are really relatable,” she says. “At the same time, native advertising can also be used to change the image of something. So I think that, unless the level of distrust is really high, a heavy investment in native advertising could probably shift the image over a long period of time.”

Mikaela Folkestad and Henriette Skådinn will share their insights into native advertising for government bodies in a joint presentation at the 2022 Native Advertising DAYS conference, taking place 13-15 June in Copenhagen, Denmark. Get your ticket here

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Story by Justin Cremer

Justin Cremer is the editor of the Native Advertising Institute. Originally from Iowa, he worked as an English-language journalist in Denmark for several years. In addition to his NAI role, he is also a journalist and copywriter for the Copenhagen content marketing agency Brand Movers.

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