Consumers have been disregarding banner ads for some time now, showing who is truly in control of the online experience. Smart publishers understood early on that to survive in the “experience era” they would need to differentiate their advertising offerings.
“There’s no secret that both banner ads and advertising, in general, are in decline,” said Jeff Pundyk, senior vice president of global integrated content solutions at The Economist (and a CMO.com blogger). “As advertising continues to decline, media companies that are completely dependent on advertising have had to find creative ways to survive without undercutting their value proposition.”
Sponsored content—also referred to as branded content and native content—became mainstream only a couple of years ago. Sponsored content typically takes the same format and qualities of a publisher’s original content. And, while it is advertising in some form, the content is often useful or entertaining information, intended to favorably influence the perception of the sponsor brand.
In late March, The Atlantic—one of the first publishers to emphasize branded content as advertising—announced that 60% of its revenue is today generated through sponsored branded content. The picture is similar for many other publishers, who are also seeing a significant portion of revenue from advertising beyond banners.
Rules Of The Trade
Take NBCUniversal as an example. The digital sites of all of its news groups have opportunities for advertisers to reach consumers with their custom messages in ways that remain authentic to the content that is published on the site every day, said Mark Miller, EVP of news advertising sales at NBCUniversal.
At Gannett’s USA Today, branded content is created in partnership with and on behalf of the advertiser, explained Kelly Andresen, VP of branded content at Gannett. Additionally, USA Today offers sponsorship of its existing editorial content, for which advertisers align their display ads next to editorial content but have no input into the content. All branded content appears with a label clearly noting the content was created by or for an advertiser and did not involve USA Today’s newsroom.
USA Today clearly labels its sponsored content.
At Hearst, which publishes mainstream titles such as “Good Housekeeping” and “Elle,” branded content is of the utmost importance. Although it is advertising, it’s very much aligned with Hearst’s overall editorial voice.
“We typically publish articles, videos, galleries, slide shows, listicles, you name it,” said Todd Haskell, SVP and CRO at Hearst Magazines Digital Media. “Our branded content offering is using those exact same techniques. So we might work with a client and help identify a variety of editorial experiences that we could create, into which we can integrate that brand’s message or even the product they’re selling.”
The one rule for Hearst, and all of the publishers interviewed for this piece, is that sponsored content must be high-value, in the publisher’s voice, and not outwardly promotional.
“We have clients that ask us periodically to distribute a piece of existing content to our readers,” Haskell said. “We don’t generally do that, the reason being that if content from ‘Elle’ suddenly started showing up in CMO.com, it would feel very strange. The reader would feel like the tone and voice don’t feel right—and that’s not good for anyone involved.”
The Economist’s Pundyk said his company has been in the branded content space before “branded content” was even a buzzword. Sponsored content at The Economist doesn’t feel like advertising at all, Pundyk said. Rather, it’s very similar to the type of content The Economist produces daily, only with an advertiser’s logo attached to it.
“We would never actually write about the sponsor themselves or about what they do commercially,” Pundyk told CMO.com. “We write about some area that they have interest in. We wouldn’t write about their products or services. So we work very hard to find something that is going to be truly interesting to our readers, something that is going to be distinctive and add value for them, something that is on point in the sense that it’s of interest to our sponsor but has enough distance from our sponsor that any reader could look at it and understand that it’s not tainted by the commercial relationship.”
As an example, Microsoft teamed with The Economist for an interactive video on navigating a cloud-enabled future. Yes, Microsoft U.K.’s chief envisioning officer is featured, but he and other thought leaders from companies not related to Microsoft also provide insights. All told: It’s pure thought leadership that just so happens to come from Microsoft.
Microsoft's sponsored video—sans product mention.
On the B2B side, publishers take a similar approach to sponsored content. For example, Forbes’ BrandVoice product, which launched in 2010, enables advertisers, for a fee, to publish their thought leadership marketing content in Forbes magazine, on Forbes.com, or on Forbes’ live events platform. On Forbes.com, advertisers access the same digital tools that editorial staffers use to create and distribute content. The difference is all BrandVoice content is clearly labeled as sourced from the brand.
“Presenting a brand’s point of view on a relevant topic, its leadership position on an innovation front, or its customers achieving great things are all great examples of long-form storytelling that traditional ads can’t easily tell,” said Tom Davis, Forbes Media CMO.
Deanna Zammit, managing director of Digiday’s Content Studio, told CMO.com that the publisher’s rules for sponsored content are simple: “If it’s not something our editorial team would typically write about, then it wouldn’t be a right fit for the Content Studio either,” she said. “We definitely want to make sure that we’re not rearing away from the tone and voice that is Digiday.”
All of the publishers interviewed for this article have separate teams who handles content creation for advertisers. The individuals on these teams have a mix of skills: editorial, design, and marketing.
The Partner Studio team is AOL’s custom content arm of the business. What makes this team like no other, according to Tariq Walker, VP of creative development at AOL, is the way it uses data insights to drive sponsored content programs. Partner Studio looks at editorial and audience insights when working with marketing partners.
“When you think of a marketer as a publisher, which a lot of brands are trying to live up to, they still don’t have the relationship with audiences that a media company has,” Walker said. “At AOL we have a unique ability to understand so many different content segments and audience segments. We’ve seen brands increasingly coming to us for help with that.”
The content team is made up of writers, designers, and many other job titles one would find in an editorial environment. They work closely with brands to determine the best approach to sponsored content and are the ones who produce the work.
At NBCUniversal, “Each of our teams consist of executives with strengths in storytelling and project management, and they work closely with the advertiser to develop the right elements for the right platform,” Miller said. Meantime, Hearst has a team, dubbed the Branded Content Studio, tasked with understanding what an advertiser wants to accomplish. The Brand Studio is staffed entirely with experienced editors, and every piece of content is created with close involvement from the editorial teams.
“The editorial team at Elle.com or GoodHousekeeping.com, for example, are very involved because we feel that the best way to create a really good reader experience is to make sure that the content that we create is going to resonate for the reader and make for a great experience,” Haskell said. “Nobody knows how to do that better than our core editorial teams themselves.”
Sometimes Hearst will hire an expert to produce a piece of content. “But everything is then reviewed, edited, and approved by the editorial team to make sure it will speak to the reader in a really powerful way,” Haskell said.
USA Today’s GET Creative team is a full-service in-house agency and production team that creates custom content in partnership with an advertiser. The team is comprised of writers, editors, producers, videographers, designers, developers, social media strategists, and audience development and engagement specialists. They are kept separate from the newsroom to ensure journalist integrity, USA Today’s Andresen said.
“The GET Creative team works directly with brands and their agencies to uncover and produce authentic and engaging stories across any medium, including articles, galleries, video, and even virtual reality, and then distributes that content across the USA Today Network,” she said.
Recently the GET Creative team worked with Honda to take viewers inside the “fastest seat in sports” via a virtual drive in a Honda Indy car two-seater going well over 150 miles per hour around a track. USA Today natively distributed a 360-degree virtual reality video for Honda.
Honda's video on the USA Today website allows people to experience the Indy car.
KPIs For Sponsored Content
While most publishers would agree that KPIs depend on how each individual advertising partner defines them, common metrics include page views, time spent, and video completes, said Andresen. USA Today also has seen some advertisers interested in measuring brand perception and brand lift pre- and post-campaign. At Forbes, advertisers look at all of that and also track which influencers engage with its stories. The Economist’s Pundyk added lead generation as a key KPI for many advertisers.
For AOL’s Walker, the number of times a piece of content is shared is an important measure of success. Insight around how people discover sponsored content has been important for advertisers as well. “The content ecosystem is very diffused now, so people aren't always coming to a destination the same way,” Walker said.
Another measure of success: how long a piece of content stays relevant. “Content lives online forever, creating long-term value for brands,” Hearst’s Haskell said. For example, last year Hearst’s “Marie Claire” magazine partnered with Tresemme hair products on content about easy hairdos; that story remains No. 1 in organic search results when you Google “easy hairstyles,” he said.
This sponsored gallery on Marie Claire is the gift that keeps on giving.
“Branded content has a durability for an advertiser that’s just really attractive because it can be the gift that keeps on giving well after a campaign ends,” Haskell told CMO.com.
Read related article: “Is Sponsored Content Antidote To Ad Blocking?”