The sale of sponsored editorial is up significantly, across almost all big name publishers. BI Intelligence predicts that the native spend will hit $21 billion next year and account for nearly three-quarters of all digital ad revenue by 2021. Similarly, according to our own MediaRadar analysis, native adoption and demand are extremely high. An average of 610 new advertisers use custom content each month. Demand is exploding as native’s impact among consumers – providing a unique ad experience compared to traditional display – has also grown considerably.
Despite this success, there are visible cracks in the foundation. Competition and unsuccessful campaigns are driving unusually low renewal rates. The average advertiser renews only 33% of the time.
We analyzed the native ad success of a prominent publisher which doubled their sponsored editorial sales in one year. This represents a major success. However, if we look a bit deeper, the results are sobering. In a year over year analysis, while 71% of advertisers did buy sponsored editorial again, only 43% returned to the original publisher, and 29% stopped buying the format entirely.
The takeaway: As the market matures and becomes more saturated, emphasis must be placed on winning the renewal. The best publishers today enjoy 90% renewal rates, creating a cash machine. There are several reasons for their success.
Clear Objectives: Publishers that see higher renewal rates establish and demand partner campaign objectives in advance. They also test that the objectives are met.
Campaign Duration: Additionally, we observe that those publishers with the longest campaign flights (more than 6 months) have much higher renewal rates. This enables for better testing and adapting, as well as provides a greater sample size of data.
Native Investment: Those winning renewals have also invested in technology and additional personnel for their solutions. They typically see a 49% renewal rate.
Native is a massive opportunity for publishers. However, a lot of work still needs to be done to optimize success and strengthen results. Without the expansion of successful native offerings, demand will outweigh supply, and the bubble could burst.
Immersive video—powered by 360° cameras and 3D platforms—is poised to make a significant impact with audiences across devices. Indeed, the advance of and Virtual Reality (VR) changes all the rules, shifting the focus from reach as the measure of effective content and storytelling to depth. More and more companies are embracing VR to connect with people on a deeper level. A new video gold rush is on, as companies race to understand and integrate some form of mixed reality into their content and marketing strategies to move and monetize their audiences.
USA Today Network, which has become one of the most prominent VR content creators in the news business, is one company that doesn’t have to play catch up. Last year it claimed the pole position, launching the first-ever weekly VR news show. “VRtually There” is a collaboration between its editorial team and in-house agency, Get Creative. The intent is to create awareness for brands such as Toyota through content aimed to educate and inspire consumers.
Peggy Anne Salz—mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove—caught up with Kelly Andresen, SVP and Head of USA Today Network’s Get Creative, to talk about the rules of immersive storytelling and the impact of VR on content, context and the consumer.
At one level, content has to be crafted to appeal to audiences, which means it has to valuable and relevant. But the advance of mobile and apps means content also needs to be more contextual. How do you manage both?
We see a range. At one end, it’s all about a 100% fully custom and bespoke approach. In those cases, we work with clients and their agencies to make recommendations on the best content to reach their audiences and their KPIs. But on the other end of the spectrum, we also see local clients who don’t just want to tell a compelling story to their customers and potential customers. They also need to drive immediate results like in-store traffic or ecommerce. In those cases, it’s about creating a context—and the right environment—for them to showcase their content and advertising message. So, in that case, it’s really about creating custom content, not branded content. It needs to provide an environment and a context where there the advertiser can showcase their specific advertising message or their unique proposition that will raise awareness of their brand and drive immediate action.
Contextual content for a local audience sounds like a good opportunity for local advertisers, which might not have the budget for content marketing,. They can piggyback” on the content you create and distribute….
Yes, but it is also a challenge for the industry as no one has really cracked local branded content at scale. Getting it right is expensive for these advertisers, and long approval processes don’t match what local advertisers need if they want to engage customers in the right time and place. It’s doesn’t fit the content of the individual. That’s where we have a unique opportunity because we are a network of 110 sites with actual physical locations, real journalists, and real connections to our communities across the U.S. This gives the infrastructure and the team to be able to create really unique solutions at an affordable price that will still drive results in the local markets. It’s an area I am going to be very focused on in 2017 as we work to build out a local branded content solution at scale.
We’re also focused on how can we revolutionize the model to help retailers tell great stories with content that also allow them to bring customers in-store. I’m particularly excited about our partnership with Walgreens, one of the nation’s largest pharmacies that also offers beauty products. They are pursuing a strategy to brand themselves as a destination for beauty products. This makeover extends to creating an entire content strategy. That’s where we’ve partnered to create original content in the form of photo galleries and 2D videos showing customers how they can “get the look” with products. Distribution of this content across all channels, including social, drives awareness of the brand. It also changes brand perception and drives calls to action including signups for the beauty program. It shows us how branded content and custom content can work for both local and national advertisers, in the right context, to move customers across all steps of the marketing funnel.
You have a multi-dimensional view of content, customers and context. You have also added virtual reality to the mix. How are you using it to tell stories that engage your audience – over a 115 million unique every month – and serve your advertisers?
The USA Today Network has taken a leadership position in the creation of high-quality premium virtual reality content, and we’ve been doing it for three years. That doesn’t sound like very long but that’s light years in the VR world. When I joined the company in 2015, the company had already made significant investments in the virtual reality space. For one, it requires a team of people who know coding and how to capture the content. It requires people who are familiar with the specialized 360° cameras, and more importantly: how to tell stories in this medium because it’s very different from any other medium.
I was fortunate to step in and build out a brand-new content studio, which has expanded to a full service in-house agency. It takes advantage of the learnings and expertise that existed in order to cultivate those same capabilities within our branded content studio. I hired people who had produced the award-winning VR and 360° video from our newsrooms to join our branded content team. Our value proposition going out to advertisers was about leveraging our knowledge to help them leapfrog and try out VR at an effective price. They also benefit from our ability to produce that content quickly and consistently.
The VR shows with Toyota are a milestone. What other VR content have you produced since?
We’ve produced original content for the 2017 Toyota Camry as well as original VR work with Google Nest. We’ve seen a lot of excitement and engagement around it. But what is unique about our offering is that we can not only create the content, we can also distribute it to an audience that is actively consuming it and looking for it because they have come to associate VR with our brand.
In theory, because VR is immersive, people can watch it for hours. How do you keep people engaged?
Number one is the storytelling. Number two is the tech. It may sound silly, but it comes down to small details, like where to put the camera, that make a big difference. For example, Honda has created the fastest two-seater in IndyCar racing. When we did the first shoot we fixed the 360° camera to the helmet. But then, when we saw this footage afterwards, it felt like you are floating above the race track instead of actually driving on the race track. It’s small things like where you place the camera make a huge difference in how the viewer experiences the content.
What is going to keep a viewer engaged? You have to give them the freedom to enjoy the content but the direction to get the most out of the experience. With 2D video you can direct viewers to look by where you put the camera. In 360 and VR, a viewer can look wherever they want. They can look up, they can look down, they can look around. So we’ve experimented with audio cues to help them look where they need to look in order to help the story along and make sure the viewer has an awesome experience.
That is about the technology, but the attraction of VR is also how it can create a sense of empathy…
We’ve seen that VR does that, which is why we believe it’s perfect for two main types of storytelling. One is transporting people. In this scenario, the content transports people to places they may never otherwise be able to experience, like the inside of a volcano or to the top of a high wire. They can experience the thrill of doing something they may never do in real life. The second is triggering emotion, empathy in particular. In this scenario, the content help tell a human story that enables people to literally experience what life is like in someone else’s shoes. Those two storylines are what drives our VR production, because both on the editorial side as well as on our branded content advertising side.
It sounds as if VR – done well – is also a way to beat ad blocking.
Ad blocking is a challenge for the content industry. But, at its core, it’s a call from consumers. They’re saying, “We want a better experience.” And I think this is a call to action for all of us to really deliver better experiences. So, yes, we are focused on creating better experiences for our audience, and our advertisers, and VR allows us to do this.
VR is in its infancy; it’s early days. What do you see as it matures?
We’ve all only scratched the surface of how we can use virtual reality as a storytelling medium. I can definitely see a future where, instead of sharing text or sharing photos like we do on social channels or even on our phones, we share whole virtual reality experiences. People can capture entire experiences and share them as content. We’re not there yet from a technical standpoint, but I do think I can see adoption and technology going in that direction. I also think we will see new kinds of interactivity. Experiences with brands and content companies will move beyond contests and quizzes. The next wave is all about enabling and empowering people to interact with brands and the content they produce to build deeper connections for both.-
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.
Sponsored content is not a new thing; paid advertorials have been around for more than a century. But there’s no denying that branded content has become a significant part of the marketing mix and media revenue generation in recent years. Certainly, the deftness with which deep contextual connections can be made in digital has been a driver of demand. Even more interesting is that this desire for context is also driving experimentation and creativity when it comes to branded content storytelling.
Guardian Labs US, the branded content studio of Guardian News and Media, recently launched a brand journalism campaign for Amazon’s Bosch series that colors way outside the lines of the traditional advertorial template. With a nod to the popular cold-case crime genre (notably the stunningly successful podcast series, Serial), the branded content team at Guardian Labs created the series How to Solve a Murder.
Branded content strategist Jill Hilbrenner says that—sponsored or not—this is the type of story The Guardian likes to tell. She cites its coverage of The Grim Sleeper case—which also examined a cold case from the 1980s. “Something we often hear at Guardian Labs is that consumers are looking for authenticity of content and storytelling.” So, when she created How to Solve a Murder (with the financial support of Amazon), she sought to deliver compelling journalism that aligns with The Guardian’s editorial standards.
According to Rachael Post, director of branded content at Guardian Labs, Amazon came to them with clear conceptual guidelines that relate to the premise of its Bosch series, which is about an LAPD homicide detective: They wanted the story to be based upon a cold case that involved Los Angeles or Las Vegas and included a detective. Then they set the Guardian Labs team loose to uncover and deliver a compelling tale.
The series—clearly labeled “Paid for by Bosch-Amazon”—explores the murder of teenaged Kari Lenander through the lens of a LAPD detective who spent years searching for her killer. According to Veronika Cernadas, who handles media and public affairs, The Guardian “is very serious about wanting to be transparent because we stand for open, transparent journalism.” This applies to all aspects of the company’s endeavors. So while How to Solve a Murder was written with a high degree of editorial autonomy, clear labeling was essential.
Hilbrenner points out there are likely to be those who are skeptical of any content that is sponsored, though she is confident that, given the quality of reporting and storytelling, readers will come away satisfied. In fact, she says that reaction to the series thus far has been highly positive, with significant discussion on social media around the forensic techniques used in the investigation, crowdsourcing of clues and tweets by author Michael Connelly, who wrote the books on which the Bosch series is based.
“We were pleased that we were trusted to do what we do best: Tell stories worth telling,” says Hilbrenner. She also says that it is possible that this model of sponsorship could afford coverage opportunities for stories that might not otherwise receive attention.” As Post points out, “we live in a very reactive news climate and investigative doesn’t always get the attention it needs even on the news side.”
While The Guardian Labs may be testing out a means of sponsoring stories worth telling, Post says that they are definitely focused on helping brands tell good stories that align with their marketing objectives “but push the envelope a little bit.”
Well known for its stable of popular lifestyle television media channels such as HGTV, Food Network, and Travel Channel, Scripps Network Interactive has been hard at work bolstering its digital presence with ongoing investments in its menu of original programming for Ulive. Now, after what Scripps Lifestyle Studios SVP and GM Vikki Neil describes as a year of intensive reorganization, resourcing and future-centric thinking, the company has debuted Scripps Lifestyle Studios, a new business division designed to drive digital content innovation and advertising solutions.
The full-service editorial unit will spearhead the development of compelling lifestyle experiences across multiple platforms including social media, apps, websites and third-party digital media outlets. According to Neil, television programming is about creating content for a 24-hour day, usually for lean-back experiences. Scripps Lifestyle Studios will do that while also creating content suited for social channels and for audience’s lean-in needs, such as how to make a birthday cake or a holiday cocktail. The formation of the new division “not only increases our capabilities, but emphasizes our dedication to creating the right content for the right platform, delivered at the right time,” says Neil. The goal is to create relevant, shareable content that instantly connects with digital-first consumers.
Upcoming launches from Scripps Lifestyle Studios will feature both linear and digital talent across multiple platforms and include HGTV Happy’s short videos on simple ways to brighten lives; a Facebook Live day-long cookie party; an Alton Brown takeover of the Snapchat channel, with a behind-the-scenes look at his favorite eats; and revealing sabotage secrets from hit Food Network show Cutthroat Kitchen.
With the new division comes “deeper integration of advertisers into storytelling.” As Neil points out, Scripps Networks Interactive has created branded content for many years. However, she says the formation of the new division comes with a philosophical shift: “We are asking our editorial team to think differently. I truly believe that if you do it right, the advertiser enhances the audience experience. What we’ve learned through experimentation is your structure doesn’t need to be church and state; our entire staff can be thinking about when, where and how to best bring a product in.”
It is significant to note that within Scripps Lifestyle Studios, the editorial side has the lead on branded content and product integrations. Neil says that advertisers trust its editors to know their audiences and best create content that will resonate with them.
In fact, Neil believes that Scripps’ editorial strength will be key driver of its digital success. “We hire very creative people across the board, but interestingly most of them are millennials and a huge percentage are women.” The result is that Scripps Lifestyle Studios is creatively fueled by its target audience. She says you can “feel the vibe when you walk our floors…these people are here because they are passionate about food, travel, home.” And this, combined with elements such as The Food Network Test Kitchen—an important hub of the new division—brings with it credibility and trust.
Neil says the formation of Scripps Lifestyle Studios makes it clear that “digital isn’t a side business;” it’s an expression of Scripps’ plan to build a brand that extends well beyond T.V.
More than 80% of marketers, advertisers, and publishers worldwide say that data is important to the deployment of their advertising and marketing efforts and a full 92.2% believe that it’s likely to play an increasingly important role in the future. Topping the list of the ways in which data is being used to tune marketing efforts is the targeting of offers, messages and creative content. And that makes a lot of sense given that 63% of marketers say they’re increasing their spending on native advertising this year.
About.com is aiming squarely at the intersection of data and content marketing with the launch of its IDEA Studio, the company’s custom content studio. IDEA stands for Intent, Data, Expertise, and About. In keeping with the company’s clearly defined content strategy, About.com’s content studio will focus on creating how-to and expert-written content that helps people answer questions, solve problems, learn something new or find inspiration. As About.com CRO Brian Colbert puts it, “When you look at how native is done in the marketplace, every publisher does it a bit differently. Since most of our traffic is intent driven, coming from search, we look at content marketing, native advertising and branded content as a great opportunity for an advertiser to be in front of the user in a very specific mindset.” That mindset, according to Colbert, is lean-in and intent driven.
While About.com clearly knows where its traffic is coming from and why, during the past year the company has made a significant investment in upping its data game. Last summer, About.com assembled a five-person data team that includes a linguist, a neuroscientist and is led by former astrophysicist Jon Roberts. Roberts, About.com’s VP of Data Sciences says that when he joined the company it had a wealth of information about how users consumed its nearly four million pieces of expert-created content. Unfortunately, the vast majority of that data was in the form of Excel spreadsheets. Roberts says his team has built a system, which he refers to as a “knowledge extraction tool”, that provides deep linguistic analysis of the site.
Initially, the tool was deployed to assist content creation teams by surfacing what users were looking for and how they were searching for it. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on problems for our content team,” says Roberts. The depth of About.com’s data archive—now assembled in a more queryable way—lets them “take a deep-dive into what the world is interested in…and it also provides a strong tool for predicting what they will be interested in at any given time across any or all of our topics.”
This data-driven tool has since been rolled out across the entire organization. Roberts says that discussions about how to better use data to support sales functions within the organization began early on in his tenure, but the launch of IDEA has accelerated and intensified his interactions with sales, including attending his first sales content, which he describes as “an education…understanding the requirements of a specific sales market is fascinating.”
While Roberts’ team is able to provide a fine-grained analysis about what people are interested in at any given time, Colbert says that it is the combined strength of the sales team and content-creation expertise that can put that data to work in the market effectively. For example, from a content-search perspective, flu season starts in the fall with a focus on prevention methods such as vaccines, but also has other distinct phases such as an interest in how it is transmitted and how long one is contagious, through treatment during the winter. These searches might well be on the Health channel of the site, but also arise on Travel or Parenting verticals, for example. Armed with granular detail on when people are searching for very specific information, their IDEA Content Studio can help an advertiser understand what content customers seek, precisely when it is being searched for.
Colbert says that then the company’s subject matter experts will create the type of content that resonates best with About.com readers, also noting the opportunity for brands to provide complementary content that will be clearly labeled and integrated into the flow of informational content on the site. While the content studio will leverage writers who create content for the editorial side of the house, Colbert says that “we have to stay true to our users. While brands can help inform, editorial will remain in our control.” The important thing, says Colbert is that the content be of sufficient quality so that readers find it useful, whether or not it comes from a brand. And to that, Roberts adds that About.com’s unique data set “allows us to know exactly what the user will be interested in. We don’t have to guess.”
And while Colbert readily admits that content marketing is not a new tactic for the industry or About.com, he believes that the launch of the IDEA Content Studio will formalize the structure and provide a better opportunity to work closely with advertisers to deliver effective marketing messages. He is enthusiastic about the opportunity to take content marketing to a new level at About.com: “what I’m most excited about is this team, our data scientists, our new integrated marketing team: We now have the arsenal to do content marketing right.”
In an age where everybody’s a content creator, being the most trusted news brand is no small accomplishment. So when Turner Broadcasting announced the launch of Courageous, its branded content studio, it didn’t simply hype the reach of its news brands CNN and HLN. The company placed almost equal emphasis on maintaining the trustworthiness on which that reach is built. “Year after year, Pew says we’re the most trusted name in news, which gives us incredible reach” says Vice President and Group Creative Director Otto Bell. And Bell makes it clear that this trust must extend into the work coming out of the branded content studio because “We cannot afford to undermine the very reason people come to us in the first place.”
That reason, according to Bell, is because Turner brands deliver quality information that is both timely and meaningful. So while real-time marketing might seem the obvious intersection between branded content and CNN, Bell says the real differentiator will be the application of journalistic acumen to the development and execution of branded content strategies.
“The opportunities for a news organization are clear: It gives us a chance to draft off of our journalistic pedigree and to understand what our audiences want.” These audiences, according to Bell, crave news and want to be among the best informed. For brands, though, the best content opportunities may not be associated with the latest thing, but rather in identifying great stories lying dormant, which a brand may not even realize they are sitting on. “We bring a fresh perspective and clean pair of eyes along with the journalistic training and ability to identify narrative hooks…instincts trained over the years to identify something of interest to an audience.”
Another key differentiator in Turner’s content studio, says Bell, will be its structured process. Based upon the nine years he spent as creative director of Ogilvy Entertainment at Ogilvy & Mather, Bell says that Courageous’ branded content programs will be developed using a “robust process with multiple steps that brings a real professional client services process to custom content.” The process starts with brand objectives, fact-finding to gain deep knowledge of the brand and layering in an editorial process—while maintaining consistent communication throughout. His team is comprised of storytellers, editors, producers, videographers and data scientists who will apply Turner’s “RED” methodology to brand partnerships: Relevancy, Execution and Distribution. Courageous content can then be distributed across CNN’s global portfolio of linear and digital properties as well as optimized for social platforms.
While Bell admits that “the ways to measure success are as varied as the objectives clients walk in with,” he is very enthusiastic about his team’s ability to measure and iterate based upon CNNMoney’s “war room.” With these real-time analytic tools (which are used my multiple divisions of the company), Bell says they’ll not only be able to monitor emerging trends to create timely content, but also reach and engagement so that content can be optimized for longevity and impact.
As Bell points out, “there are a lot of publishers and even brands opening content studios so we spent a long time working on our approach and thinking about our point of view.” The RED methodology is a result of that process and the name of the studio—Courageous—is indicative of how his team will distinguish their brand of branded content. “We wanted something that spoke to a brave mindset, one where brands would set out with us on a bit of a journey.” And given that that CNN is credited with having invented the 24/7 news cycle and the company’s ongoing commitment to trust, transparency and innovation, Bell believes that his Courageous team is building the future of branded content on a solid foundation.
Over the past week or so, several good pieces have been published about the Verizon-sponsored technology news site SugarString, each offering some excellent insights for organizations seeking to create their own content-centric site or to create sponsored content distributed elsewhere:
The Daily Dot article focuses on the inherent dilemma created by a purported “news site” that expressly forbids its reporters “from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.”
Verizon fired back at The Daily Dot saying “SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology.”
Takeaway: Brands venturing into developing their own content sites – particularly news-focused ones – must work doubly hard to convince readers they are providing a fair and transparent view.
Washington Post blogger Nancy Scola takes a close look at the “thoughtful, tech-focused stories that track humanity’s climb toward what’s next.” She finds that, “to date, the site’s articles have been focused on simply affirming the mobile tech lifestyle.”
Scola also wisely raises the issue of labeling the content as branded content, pointing out that if this content appeared on a traditional media outlet, it would be labeled something along the lines of “sponsored advertising.” She also finds the small “Presented by Verizon tags” to be of questionable value in terms of transparency.
Takeaway: Clear labeling is unequivocally a best practice for any branded content, but it doesn’t solve the issues around value and transparency. In addition, given the variety of places content is consumed (social, mobile, etc.), creating labeling that works in any context remains a challenge.
In his The Media Equation Column, David Carr writes that he stumbled across SugarString and found its coverage of privacy somewhat baffling…until he noticed some “teeny type that said ‘This article was written by an author contracted by Verizon.’”
Carr calls out a slew of other branded content sites in a variety of subject areas, some better than others, wisely noting that “publishing looks easy, but is filled with peril.” For Carr, the Verizon foray into brand-underwritten news is a cautionary tale about what we may have to do to fund the creation of content now and in the future.
Takeaway: Creating engaging, credible and trustworthy content, particularly news, is challenging even for mature media companies; brands diving in for the first time should check the water’s depth and err on the cautious side
Undoubtedly, others will continue to pick apart Verizon’s foray into creating its own tech news site to drive awareness and build its brand through content. Certainly, experimentation is important, but transparency and delivering valuable information that users can trust must be at the top of the list for any content initiative.