If you’ve delved into the topic, you’ve surely come across The New York Times’ seminal “Women Inmates” branded content campaign in 2014, often described as native advertising’s “Snow Fall” experience. The byline there? Melanie Deziel, who in her position as the first editor of branded content at the NYT helped to conceive the campaign in partnership with Netflix around its “Orange is the New Black” series.
Today, Deziel is a branded content strategist and consultant for hire, travelling the US to educate marketing, sales and editorial teams on branded content strategy while serving as a board member of the Native Advertising Institute.
She is also the former Director of Creative Strategy for Time Inc., where she led ideation for sponsored content programs across 35+ publications.
Deziel will speak at Digital Media Europe 2016 on the topic, and we talked to her about the state of branded, sponsored, native content – whatever you want to call it.
Before we get into the state of native advertising today… what was the reverberation of the "Orange is the New Black" campaign internally at The New York Times, i.e. what was the reception?
This article speaks to some of the reactions from the NYT newsroom employees. As you might imagine, the editorial and advertising staffs of the NYT were kept very separate, so much of the feedback we would have gotten would have been indirect, through social sharing or the media, as we didn't often interact directly, by design.
Several folks, though, did praise the work has having been well-written, or well-shot, or addressing an important issue. They liked the way we used reliable sources and put so much focus on the design and user experience.
We tried very hard, at T Brand Studio, to make the piece as editorial as we could and to hold ourselves to the same standards the newsroom might, as best we could, so it was truly a great compliment to hear that many other folks — both inside the building and outside — felt it was journalistically sound, well-reported, and otherwise worth of the Times brand.
How controversial do you think native advertising is today, compared to say, two or three years ago… and does that controversy come mostly from the publishing side? Are the lines still blurred?
I don’t think the concept of native advertising is controversial, honestly. Advertisers have been telling stories for hundreds of years, and in many ways, standard advertising is just more branded storytelling. Advertisers coming to publishers for assistance in content creation and promotion is just a natural evolution of trying to get an audience for that storytelling.
What may be more controversial is the way that that content comes to life. Rarely does anyone argue that brand storytelling is ineffective or useless. Much more often we’re having conversations about clear labeling to ensure that audiences have a good understanding of what they’re experiencing or about preventing influence of advertiser content over our editorial coverage. These are worthy conversations to have.
I think the controversy surrounding topics like labeling come from all sides; it’s in the best interest of everyone that content be clearly labeled as having been influenced by an advertiser. Newsrooms want a clear delineation of advertising and editorial content, readers want to know exactly what they are reading, and marketers and advertisers want to be clearly associated with content they create and put resources behind. So everyone is, or should be, interested in finding the best and most clear way to disclosure advertiser-influenced content.
How would you characterise the state of native advertising from the publishing side, in terms of embracing and working with it?
As an industry, publishing is still evolving toward native advertising comfort, and every publisher is doing it at their own pace and in their own way. Those publishers who have been at it a long time and the newer publishers who weren’t bogged down by legacy policies were able to learn quickly and adapt in a way that makes it a core part of their business with fairly few hiccups.
Some publishers are just a tiny bit into their experiments with native and still have some of the common growing pains of establishing best practices, implementing new technology and scaling both a content-creation practice and a content-sales practice. Still others have held off, and have yet to really enter that world, either out of principle or because they have other income streams that have delayed the need for branded content as a revenue generation tool.
I think, overall, we’ve learned that the best content is created by seasoned storytellers, and that those folks often come from editorial backgrounds. We’ve also learned that for the good of the editorial institution and their relationship with their audience, those storytellers need to be separate from the storytellers on the editorial side; there seems to be a fairly unanimous decision that hiring dedicated storytellers for branded content is the best way to ensure quality content without jeopardising the sanctity of the trust readers have in the editorial content.
Then in terms of execution? Is there still a big struggle there?
The fact of the matter is, good content is hard to scale, whether it’s branded or not. That’s why newsrooms are in need of new revenue streams, and why so many local papers are folding as print advertising revenue has dropped, content online is expected to be free, and subscriptions have dropped. So it comes as no surprise that branded content teams would face some of the same challenges.
The difference is that the expectations are even higher for the performance of branded content, where so much money and other resources have been put into each piece. This means the content is always expected to exceed engagement benchmarks, and pageview estimates and other metrics – nobody wants a piece to perform even average, never mind below average.
As a result, you have small and new teams that are being asked to produce only the best possible “never-fail” content, with tons of oversight and often-conflicting feedback from different groups (internal stakeholders, agencies, brands, etc.) in a limited timeframe and with a limited budget… it’s no surprise that there are challenges in building these kinds of teams quickly and effectively.
So essentially there are three basic models for publishers dealing with this?
Yes, there are three common models. The first is to hire an entire in-house team that produces the vast majority of the publisher’s branded content in partnership with advertisers.
The second model is to have next-to-no in-house staff, and to use a limited number of staffers to simply post content created by advertisers.
The third common model is somewhere in-between those two, where a publisher hires a limited number of in-house staff to create some of the content and oversee the outsourced creation of the rest of the content through third-party networks or freelancers.
How are small- to mid-sized publishers dealing with native?
Every publisher has to figure out which model works best for them. Many small and mid-sized publishers don’t have the resources or the volume of native requests to justify hiring an entire dedicated branded content team, so they wind up with a more turn-key model of simple repackaging and posting assets created by advertisers.
While this does create new revenue streams for them, in many cases, it doesn’t do much for the content quality, and therefore the readers, as it denies this branded content the storytelling expertise of a dedicated staff of trained strategists, editors and producers.
Who would you say is struggling more, publishers or brands?
Both publishers and advertisers have their own challenges as they embark on a more robust embrace of native advertising.
Many publishers must deal with the reality that they need this new revenue stream to compensate for losses in other areas, like print subscriptions. They have to balance the desires of a paying advertiser pushing for additional product integration and branding, with the fact that their readers will see less value in heavily branded content.
They must deal with tight timelines for production, and the expectation of excellence on an often small budget, and the pressure to ensure that the content performs well enough to result in a renewal for additional revenue. And, when that content doesn’t perform well or is poorly received, they have to worry about the backlash from the audience, which ultimately hurts the publisher more than the advertiser.
The practical and tactical risks are lower for brands than for publishers, but they are often the ones with skin in the game — resources on the line. Brands and publishers also have to figure out how to back away from their product or service enough to determine what stories they can tell that will actually be valuable to their audience; that is, they must stop trying to sell and figure out the ways they can teach, inform, entertain or otherwise bring value to their customers and potential customers through content.
— Melanie Deziel (@mdeziel) February 25, 2016
How much does context play a factor in where that content is presented, i.e. does it fit in well or stand out too much?
Context is one of the most important factors in creating native advertising that resonates with an audience. "Native" literally means something that belongs, that fits in, that is organic, so for advertising to truly be "native" it needs to take on the form and function of the other content it’s presented alongside. That means it needs to be on a relevant topic, presented in a similar format, have a comparable tone of voice, employ the user experience readers know and expect, and is of the same level of quality. And that will differ by website, by publisher, by section of the website and by platform. Recognising context and adjusting to fit it is the key to making sure your content is engaging no matter where it’s being consumed.
It’s often stated that native helps to get around ad blocking, when in fact, research shows that’s not necessarily true… your thoughts?
Well, ad-blocking software is not qualitative. It doesn’t care what’s good or what’s not, or where that ad leads if you click it. It unilaterally blocks the defined items, which in most cases means anything being automatically ad served on a page. If you are serving your native advertising through an ad server, then the ad-blocker is doing exactly its job in blocking your content from appearing on the page. If, however, you do not use an ad server to promote your content and instead use your editorial Content Management System, then your content would be less likely to be hidden by an ad blocker, as it would look just like the editorial content on the page.
The reality is, ad blockers are just a technical solution to a problem we created for ourselves, and the rate of their adoption is evidence of the scale of the problem.
By making obnoxious ad creative that people don’t want to see, and serving it through systems that slow load times and drain battery life, and by interrupting their experience by having these things pop-up, or slide in, or otherwise block out the screen, without being easily closed, we’ve turned digital advertising into something that people understandably want to avoid…
It’s hard for us to change our tune, this late in the game, and ask people not to ignore us because we’ll change, and we "really want to bring something valuable and not disruptive now, we promise!" It’s even harder to say while we’re still using all those old practices that made them block us in the first place. It’s like someone coming to your house, wrecking all your things and then begging for an invite to next week’s bash… can you blame them for locking the door?
We need to change our tune and focus on bringing value back to our consumers through native advertising, and we need to do it long enough and consistently enough that we can earn back our consumers’ trust and help them see the value in letting us back in. But until we earn that trust back and step up to the plate, we can’t blame them for wanting quality.
How are publishers addressing distribution on social media of native content, and what are brands/advertisers expecting these days? Your advice?
Social distribution is almost always included in the distribution plan for branded content, though every publisher leans on different channels and uses it to different degrees. Some rely on it very heavily because their content type lends itself well to engagement and traffic from specific social networks. (Think BuzzFeed, whose content tends to be very social in nature).
Others focus on just one or two niche networks where their audience is heaviest. (Refinery29, for example, does a lot of content on Facebook and would also play well on Pinterest with their fashion/beauty/lifestyle focus).
Every social network offers different advantages and disadvantages; for example, Facebook is highly targetable because of the personal information we all give them, while LinkedIn offers access to a professionally focused audience, while Pinterest works very well for visual promotion of DIY, food and fitness content.
The key is to make intentional choices, not just play a numbers game. That is, choose the right social network for the content theme and topic you are creating content around as well as the audience you are looking to reach.
How are brands, studios, publishers approaching native distinctively for smartphones?
For a long time, we’ve been designing content to be “mobile-friendly,” so that mobile readers could experience it too. But now, as trends shift toward more and more mobile consumption, many publishers are opting to design their content to be “mobile-first.”
Some of the same best practices still apply, but you do need to turn special attention to navigational and interactive features that simply don’t display as well on smaller screens.
You must watch for user experience issues like large imagery that might prevent someone from scrolling further, or issues with zooming that are presented by small screens. But quality content is quality content, so it’s important for stories to lead, and for experience and tech to be a part of the presentation conversation early on to make sure those quality stories can be viewed and engaged with across platforms.
Since consumers have been shown to have an increasingly shorter attention span, how important is it for content to be visual and/or interactive?
As new technology becomes available, it can be really tempting to start adding tons of bells and whistles to try to make our content flashier and more interactive. But the truth is, it’s far more important that the content be truly interesting than flashy. Adding lights and sliders and animations to a boring story will only make it interactively boring.
It’s so important that we find an interesting, unique, entertaining and truly engaging story to tell first, and then determine the best ways to bring that content to life.
Technology should be additive to a story, not the basis of it. If the technology alone were enough to keep people engaged, we’d spend all our time looking at demos on technology sites instead of consuming content.