Sponsored content doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. As publishers and marketers double down on their commitment to providing deeper branded experiences, instead of traditional advertising, the rules of the road are becoming clearer on both sides. And more so than just four or five years ago; conventions for doing it right have emerged.
In talking to a range of publishers of various sizes and categories, we found that the practices ensuring sponsored content maintains a publisher’s voice and integrity take remarkably similar form.
Getting it right, making sponsored content serve the interests of readers, publishers and their clients remains a complex process that starts with basic organization and goal setting but also lends itself to certain content formats, as well as execution and measurement regimen.
Think like editors
In talking to sources, the consensus seems to be that creating authentic sponsored content starts with how the operation is organized and connected to the editorial team.
“We are a full-service, one-stop shop,” says Adam Ochman, senior VP, creative and strategy at Leaf Group, whose brand portfolio includes Hunker, LiveStrong.com and Well+Good.
A full staff of writers focus solely on branded content, with little outsourcing, he says. That keeps the branded content team in day-to-day contact with the company’s editors and processes to ensure its brand voices are ingrained.
“We operate more like an editorial enterprise,” says Outside‘s Sam Moulton, who transitioned from executive editor to content marketing director in 2015, and now serves as director of marketing. “Every person on my staff has editorial experience.”
They do the same lede edit, fact check and A/B testing of display copy and social coy that they do with regular articles.
“Everything about it uses the same caliber writer that writes for us editorially,” Moulton adds.
Foundry, Meredith Corp.’s much larger in-house branded content shop, is divided into three studios, each aligned to different verticals so that staff bring to each project direct experience with writing, design and video conventions in that sector.
“Organizationally, we have strong relationships with the editors,” says Alec Morrison, Foundry’s director of content and strategy, who previously ran custom content at Sports Illustrated. “We understand the mindsets of the brands and how they communicate with their audience. We use some of the same tools and proprietary data and insights.”
A recent program for Ford centered around women who had innovated and excelled in male-dominated fields in order to bolster brand affinity with the SUV maker. Among other assets, the program included deep profiles, videos and sponsored faux covers of the women that appeared in both digital and print across five Meredith titles as diverse as Better Homes & Gardens, People and Travel + Leisure.
Different women were aligned with each title, with content aimed at that particular audience.
“A lot of the communication was with the editors at the five brands,” Morrison says. “We thought through look and feel and checked in with these editors that we had achieved that goal.”
Talk to your client
Setting expectations with the advertiser about what a publishing brand is and what it can (and cannot) deliver though sponsored content is critical. Moulton points to the 43-year tradition of Outside’s literary journalism and how that must infuse everything that appears under the brand name.
For instance, the pitch may go something like, “Your company is really good at making shoes,” followed by, “Our core competency is storytelling and stories we know our audiences like.”
Then it often comes down to a deck they share with clients, illustrating the Outside brand and past projects, because, he says, “Some people do native content with others without best practices.”
Ochman emphasizes the need for an “honest conversation” between Leaf and the client about who the client’s consumer is as well as the voice of Leaf’s brands that their readers respond to.
“Everyone comes to the table with an open mind and willingness not just to make an ad or make something that doesn’t just talk to KPIs,” he says.
And when it comes to video especially, “Creative preparation is paramount,” he stresses. “There should be limited surprises on set. Work with the client day in and day out so you prepare for every contingency and so the story is as tight as can be and that the marketing KPIs are nailed.”
It’s all about the content…experience
Audiences sniff at inauthentic sponsored content experiences that are too thin, overtly promote an advertiser message over the story or just don’t fit the context, says Morrison.
“Content that is too generic will always struggle to perform,” he says. Instead, the story needs to feel essential to that audience and have substance.
Sponsored omnichannel content experiences have become one way to achieve authenticity and substance that impacts the consumer at multiple touchpoints. For the client Smart50, a new product line launched by PepsiCo-owned Smartfood Popcorn, Leaf Group created a video series involving its Well+Good editors leaving the office to learn other professions—what it takes to be a spin instructor or a facialist. But this brand-building exercise was just the top of a full-funnel program that also involved extensions into the homepage, email, channel takeovers and a mobile flex unit that offered a gallery of shoppable products.
Content often works best when it recognizes the fragmented nature of media consumption. For a TV series promotion for Entertainment Weekly, Foundry worked with the magazine editors to build native content that included season overviews, character catch-ups and episode recaps.
“This is a great content experience because it has a lot of touchpoints,” says Morrison. “There is a lot of bite-sized content that forms a great whole, so readers want to scroll and click.”
At Outside, Moulton finds that many brands don’t understand the value of their own story.
“They don’t know what they want to do and think people don’t know them as a brand,” he says. “And they are right, because no one ever did a good brand story.”
But to be editorially rigorous and true to Outside’s own legacy, “that is a big leap,” he says. “A company needs trust us to tell their story.”
For Outside, that involves its own research and interviewing people within the client’s company. The company will often resist an advertiser’s desire to make their own products the hero of a piece and look for the deeper appeal for their readers. They take all of this research seriously.
“We really do dig into everything they have going on,” Moutlon says. “We’re not just saying we will do a ‘native’ piece.”
In the case of Icebreaker, a New Zealand-based merino wool clothing brand, Outside found a real hero. Downward market pressures on the country’s famous wool economy had been depressing prices paid to farmers, their ability to feed sheep well and thus the actual quality. Icebreaker’s founder “single-handedly turned around the New Zealand wool economy” by insisting on paying farmers higher prices to ensure better quality. These sorts of brand hero stories have been performing especially well for Outside as readers look for brands aligned with their values.
“Who you are and how you operate sustainability practices matter more than ever,” Moulton says.
Distribution = Quality
Ultimately, the authenticity of sponsored content directly impacts the ancillary costs of driving awareness and reach. Ochman says the basic problem to solve is: “how to create branded content that stands on its own so you don’t have to buy a ton of traffic.” The authenticity has to extend to all of the distribution points.
Moulton suggests that continuity and context in placement are also critical. While clearly labeled and attributed to the sponsor, the branded pieces usually show up as the second story in a feed, bearing the same fonts and formats as the editorial surroundings. Outside has multiple channels on site, so it aligns the piece with audience interest.
The same integration is important on social distribution, but here lies another opportunity for publishers. Matching the language and voice of the Facebook or Instagram post to the editorial voice of the publication is table stakes, of course. But Outside also finds that matching photography in a branded post is increasingly important, too. The branded post often shows up as the third or fourth slide in an Instagram Story, but “the right photo can make or break the performance,” he says. Outside is increasingly doing more custom photo work around the sponsored content projects. This costs the client more, but has a higher return.
“Brands are hungry for assets,” Moulton says. “We are only using four or so photos total, but we are giving the client 20 or more from that shoot.”
Time is on your side
While lower-funnel conversion and sales metrics are often tied to gift and product guides, hotspots in images or videos, higher-level brand impact tends to focus on time spent and engagement metrics.
“For us, a key metric is time with the piece,” says Moulton. Beyond impressions, “click-throughs are a great indication not only of engagement time, but embedded links have had incredible success clicking through to partner sites.”
Moulton suggests that this is where publishers have leverage. “For us, what we can control is engagement.”
“That is the best way to tell if a brand is working or not,” he says. “Once a video view happens or someone lands on a page, will they stay with it and engage in the user experience? Consumption time, target clicking on features, liking and sharing—that all tells us we are doing our job keeping their attention.”