As you may know, if you’ve read any of the blogposts I’ve been filing for Folio: since January or any of a number of other pieces I’ve published in other media, I’ve been a proponent of all sorts of branded content for some time—especially native advertising.
This position has not been unchallenged. Despite the FTC’s decision almost two years ago to forego regulation of native advertising because the agency believes that both publishers and brands are already imposing their own strict guidelines on labeling, ensuring that consumers understand the source of this content, not everyone has been convinced.
I’ve seen this skepticism particularly when I’ve talked about branded content with the editors and publishers of association publications, for whom even print advertorials, hardly a new vehicle, are often seen as a dangerous wedge in the great divide between church and state. But even commercial publishers, more likely to be early adopters, haven’t necessarily embraced branded content with as much fervor as those of us who create branded content every day would both hope and expect.
But I think that’s changing.
What brought that home to me were three conversations I had last week in preparation for a panel on native advertising that I’m moderating at next week’s Folio: Show. Although the people I spoke with work for different types of consumer publications (a large regional newspaper with both print and digital editions, a mass market digital-first website that’s part of an enormous online publishing empire, and an exclusive, niche publication with a small print arm and a growing digital presence), they all spoke the same language when it came to talking about native advertising. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, given their growing success with this approach, they made the same key points:
1. Stay Ahead of the Curve: While all three publishers said they were listening carefully to their advertisers and trying to meet their needs, they were also looking to encourage, inspire, and reel in potential sponsors by dangling opportunities the brands might not have thought of—opportunities that played on each publication’s strengths and maximized the value of its unique audience. Sometimes these were elaborately produced print vehicles, but they were also short- and long-form videos, infographics, blogs, and more. Some were one-shots. Some were series. They looked carefully at all the formats, channels, and media in which they published their regular content to find appropriate homes for branded content.
2. Control Both the Medium and the Message: All three publications had created in-house departments to dream up and create all this new branded content. Sometimes the department was carefully separated from the publication’s regular editorial team; one publication purposely drafted its regular editorial team to create the branded content. But in all cases the motive was the same: quality control. Yes, the publication was looking to make it easier for the brand to place native advertising. Yes, the publication was looking to maximize the fees it could charge (creation plus placement). But more importantly, all three publications felt that they understood their audiences, knew what the audiences would expect and accept, and therefore could, as one publisher put it, make sure that the branded content is “as good as anything else we publish.”
3. Always Be Transparent: There was no question at all about the need to make the origin of content clear to readers. Just as they wanted to make sure they maintained the quality of the content by controlling its creation, they also wanted to ensure that the integrity of their publication as, essentially, a journalistic enterprise was maintained as well. And that means clear labeling—of both the advertiser and the in-house creator (a good sales pitch, you might say, for the publication’s in-house branded content team).
So how does this work? How successful has it been? Where is it heading? What can you learn from these examples? To find out, attend the “Building a Suite of Native Ad Products That Work” panel at the Folio: Show on Wednesday, October 21, at 1:35 PM. The speakers will be Lauri Baker, vice president of content partnerships at AOL/The Huffington Post; Will Pearson, founder and president of Mental Floss; and Dan Sarko, vice president, digital sales, at Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com. And I’ll tell you more about what they have to say in next month’s blogpost.