On Wednesday, April 25, we hosted a digital panel discussing native advertising and sponsored content in great detail. The panelists represented two of the biggest names in print and digital media publishing, GateHouse Media and TownNews. This blog is a summary of the conversation, including our favorite highlights.
- How do you and your organization view the distinction between native advertising and sponsored content?
- How do you structure a healthy and highly functioning native advertising/sponsored content team?
- What are the key ingredients to ensure that sponsored content campaigns are wins for the brand and the publisher?
- What are brands missing or not taking advantage of when it comes to sponsored content? What’s one thing you wish brands knew to optimize their results?
- In light of shifting FTC guidelines or even your own publisher guidelines, how do you approach transparency and labeling native advertising and/or sponsored content?
- How is submitted content different from original content? When would you use one over the other to achieve the best results?
- What are some key things you’ve learned about native advertising in the last few years and where do you see brands missing opportunities?
- How does your approach to native advertising change when you start to venture out into social media?
- What are your best practices around targeting in native advertising? How does your approach change when you’re talking national vs. targeted campaigns?
Lisa Glowinski, Director of More Content Now
Carlene Cox, Director of Specialty Content
Theresa Nelson, Director of Business Development
Tim Turner, Content Program Manager
Summary and highlights
(10:32) How do you and your organization view the distinction between native advertising and sponsored content?
Five or six years ago, according to Tim Turner, TownNews said that native ads and sponsored content are kind of the same thing. But with the advent of content discovery platforms and Google AdWords, the two have charted different courses.
Carlene Cox added that GateHouse defines it a little differently. “What we consider native advertising is fairly editorial in nature,” she says.
Both agree, however, that sponsored content is a brand- or brand-partner-created content item that provides value to the reader.
(14:29) How do you structure a healthy and highly functioning native advertising/sponsored content team?
According to Carlene, a highly functioning native advertising and sponsored content team is made up of people who have a strong sense of what makes good content.
“Everyone on my team has either been a writer or reporter in their past lives,” Carlene says. “What’s critical for us is creating compelling content that people actually want to read and keeps them interested so they don’t mind that they’re being pitched to at the same time.”
She also presses the importance of complementary skill sets and a robust training infrastructure. There must be a balance of strengths and weaknesses and people working within native advertising and sponsored content must know what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) within their organization.
(20:00) What are the key ingredients to ensure that sponsored content campaigns are wins for the brand and the publisher?
If the content is good, it’s all gravy.
Tim says that, across their network of 1,700 publishers, the surest way to a successful sponsored content campaign is content that’s well-written, engaging, and ready and formatted for wherever it’s going to be published.
And since TownNews is in the middle of that relationship, they can see exactly how valuable that content is.
“We review the content on a regular basis to make sure users are getting value from it,” Tim says. “Because we know that users engaging is the best way to generate value for both the brand and the agencies. We want to make sure that content has editorial value, not just ad value.”
Both companies also give local and national examples of the most mutually beneficial native advertising and affiliate marketing partnerships.
(26:05) What are brands missing or not taking advantage of when it comes to sponsored content? What’s one thing you wish brands knew to optimize their results?
Create with the audience in mind.
TownNews has seen firsthand that targeted sponsored content (in its many forms, whether it’s demographic, emotional or contextual targeting) yields significantly better results.
“We look at everything from the data side of it, too, to get the full picture,” explains Theresa Nelson, “and we see that, if sponsored content is targeted, it’s been proven to increase engagement, which is beneficial for all parties. If brands think content-first and see it from the audience’s perspective, the sponsorship will add another layer of relevance.”
Theresa also suggests avoiding trending stories when it comes to sponsored content. They see worse results on trending content and it can actually turn quite a few publishers off.
TownNews data also reinforces the fact that the less sales-y you are in your sponsored content, the more successful that content will be. Tim also shares a few content types perfectly positioned to help brands make that shift.
(32:45) In light of shifting FTC guidelines or even your own publisher guidelines, how do you approach transparency and labeling native advertising and/or sponsored content?
Both companies are extreme sticklers about labeling sponsored content and native advertising. But they don’t do it just because the government tells them to.
GateHouse makes sure they’re not only up to the FTC guidelines but also paying attention to what their publishing peers are doing to effectively label sponsored content and native advertising. This goes for social as well. All platforms need transparency. One metric they’re really interested in is time on site. They want to see how long someone is on that story page.
Carlene from GateHouse gives two examples of the difference between a company submitting a pamphlet about blood clots and a hospital telling real stories about quality care and recoveries. I bet you can guess which was more successful.
Of course, your brand knows your business best. But Carlene does a great job explaining the benefits of trusting the message to those who know what makes really good content and how to collaborate with your content partners in a healthy and productive way.
(43:51) What are some key things you’ve learned about native advertising in the last few years and where do you see brands missing opportunities?
While the original intent for native advertising was to always fit the form and function of the site on which it appeared, it didn’t necessarily chart the intended course, according to Theresa.
Theresa suggests that this is still a relatively young practice and improvements are being made in a lot of areas. She stresses again the importance of the “Content first, ad second” approach. Native advertising is a great brand recognition tactic, but it’s important to avoid clickbait headlines, which can be a tough balance to strike.
BONUS: Based on TownNews data, B2B lead gen accelerates when brands leverage native advertising AND sponsored content together.
(49:20) How does your approach to native advertising change when you start to venture out into social media?
Carlene details how GateHouse uses sponsored content across the Facebook pages of the 500+ newspapers they own.
“They’ve all been given the green light for sponsored posting,” Carlene says. “But even though social is baked into the package, we still reserve the right to refuse to post if it’s too pitchy or really canned or doesn’t align with our editorial standards.”
With all the scrutiny Facebook is under regarding editorial integrity, they almost seem even more stringent with their standards on social media. And when talking about the new algorithm changes, Carlene says publishers who haven’t struggled are almost impossible to find.
“If there’s a media organization out there that hasn’t been impacted negatively,” she adds, “I’d love to get in touch with them. It’s across the board.”
(54:29) What are your best practices around targeting in native advertising? How does your approach change when you’re talking national vs. targeted campaigns?
Geo-targeting? Sure. Demographic targeting? Sure.
But TownNews says that behavioral targeting is where you can make the biggest impact.
Behavioral targeting is targeting based on interest and action to create extreme relevance to an intended audience. For instance, you can target based on favorite band and favorite place to watch music videos. Or you can target based on political affiliation and tendency to fill out surveys. You’re able to use what they’re interested in and the ways they like to interact with content to create extreme relevance.
TownNews has gathered a ton of data and it all seems to suggest behavioral targeting provides the most significant gains in content engagement.
“One thing we always encourage brands to do is look for the opportunity and ability to target in that way,” Theresa suggests, “because the engagement metrics that come back from that type of content are much, much higher than regular run-of-site targeting.”