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The New PR: Paid Media Strategies That Work [WEBINAR TRANSCRIPT]

The following is a transcript of Brandpoint’s webinar titled “The New PR: Paid Media Strategies That Work,” Brandpoint president, Scott Severson, digs into the what, how and why of paid media tactics like sponsored content and native advertising. He gives PR pros and marketers the tools to make these paid media tactics work for them and their clients.

During our time together we’d like to share our views and research on why paid media is increasing for PR.

We’re going to discuss:

  • Paid media platforms
  • Formats and their outcomes

We’ll review potential pitfalls and compliance issues and finally we’ll look at why paid is an increasingly important part of a converged media strategy.

Paid media’s past

So first we’d like to look at where we’ve been.

Earned media was the primary focus of PR since it’s inception.

So as we look at paid media for PR we have to acknowledge that it’s acceptance is fairly recent. According to the Custom Content Council, spending on sponsored content for US companies has increased by over 185% over the last several years. And so we’ve really gone from being earned only to really seeing sponsored increase dramatically as part of the mix.

And we think there are two core shifts that are going on that are really responsible for this and are really driving this.

First, consumers are becoming more fragmented and we’re just getting harder to reach.

We need to be in more places than ever before to effectively reach our audiences. I thought it was funny. I just read a stat from Accenture that 87% of consumers use more than one device at a time now. So we are viewing multiple screens simultaneously.

At the same time, another reason that sponsored is increasing is because securing earned media is only becoming more difficult.

Your press releases often go ignored and increasingly-thin editorial teams are really harder than ever to reach with your pitch. It’s really hard to get an editor to pick up the phone today. According to a recent report, the Reagan Report, they surveyed editors across a broad spectrum of publications and universally they said, “Do not call us with your pitches.” So your job in securing earned media is only getting more difficult.

So as a result of these two shifts, to drive results for clients today, we feel that paid media must play a role in an integrated strategy that includes Paid, Earned, Owned and Shared Media. Or PESO as it’s commonly referred to.

Everyone in this audience is very familiar with earned media, media that you’re not paying for and that editors are writing based on the merits of the story.

Owned is becoming more popular today with the advent of content marketing. And owned media most typically refers to content that lives on a site owned by you like your blog, a webinar, customer stories or even case studies

When we talk about paid media, for the purposes of this talk, we’ll focus primarily on sponsored content and native advertising. And finally shared media or social media is woven through all of these other channels and really touches all of them. As paid media is becoming more content based, it’s been a natural fit for PR to extend their brand story telling to these formats.

Native advertising and sponsored content

native advertising vs. sponsored content

We’re going to look at the two most popular formats for PR: Native Advertising and Sponsored Content. But first we need to, I think, define what we’re talking about. We see a fair amount of confusion surrounding native ads and sponsored content. Many people think that native ads and sponsored content are interchangeable terms; and while they may be in the same family, we believe that they are different species altogether.

[FEATURED INFOGRAPHIC: Native Advertising vs. Sponsored Content]

Let’s look at native ads first.

Native advertising defined

By definition, a native ad is a media placement that fits the appearance of the surrounding content, but it doesn’t tell the full story.

Most commonly, native ads will include a teaser of the story with a related image and a link to either sponsored content or it can be linked to owned or even earned media.

While traditional online advertising formats, like banner ads, are on a race to the bottom (And let’s face it. When was the last time you clicked on a banner ad?) native advertising is exploding right now.

In a few short years it is predicted that native ads will account for 74% of all online ad revenue.

That stat is largely driven by Facebook’s heavy use of native ad formats.

Native advertising formats

Let’s take a look at some of the popular formats of native ads. One popular form of native ads are content discovery platforms.

There’s a bunch of these platforms out there. I believe they number in the hundreds. But the ones you’re most familiar with are ones like Outbrain, Taboola and at Brandpoint we’ve been using StackAdapt more lately because we like their enhanced targeting capabilities and their ability to help ensure brand safety.

So to dig a little deeper into these platforms, Outbrain and Taboola are similar in concept, but they do tend to have different quality levels of sites in their networks.

StackAdapt, on the other hand, is an aggregator of multiple content discovery networks. So they can really be thought of as a technology layer that sits above these platforms and offers some value-add through their technology. We’ve found that StackAdapt has much more robust user-level targeting capabilities and they provide us, when we’re working with our clients, more ability to optimize to post-click engagement outcomes that our clients are looking for.

Another form of native ads is paid social.

I’m sure you’ve all have noticed that the organic reach of your social posts has plummeted over the last several years. Facebook told us for years to invest in building an audience on their platform.

Now the challenge is, because they changed their algorithm, the only way to effectively reach more than a really small percentage of your audience is: Facebook is going to force you to pay to boost your posts and extend your reach.

Now the upside for Facebook, even though we don’t necessarily like the bait-and-switch aspect of building an audience and then having to pay for them a second time, they really do offer a lot of different native options for you to choose from and they have amazing targeting capability.

Related to Facebook, we’re seeing more advertisers look to Instagram’s native ad offerings as well. When it comes to Instagram, it turns out that a picture really is worth a thousand words. And those images greatly aid in ad recall as well. As you’re looking at different native platforms, based on the performance, Instagram may be a platform that you want to include into your testing.

Native advertising outcomes

Let’s look at some of the outcomes of native ads.

The big outcome for our clients is native ads create an immediate and measurable result, and that’s becoming huge. Some of the measurables include views and clicks and post-click engagement.

Native is also an effective way to drive measurable traffic to both earned media and sponsored content and we’ll get to that in a second. We find that native is also great way to both extend the shelf-life of a positive earned media story that you may have captured and it’s also a really good way to significantly extend the reach of that positive earned media story.

Also, given its speed for message dissemination, it can be a valuable asset for crisis communications, when you need to get a message that is a more immersive story-based message out there quickly, native may be a tactic you may want to pursue.

A side benefit that some of our clients value is native can be an effective way for you to build your cookie pools for your re-targeting campaigns, as you want to build out those people that have kind of raised their hand and said your message is relevant to them.

According to Forbes, native ads can increase consumer perception and awareness by as much as 82%, so it really does make sense that native is an increasingly integral part of the strategy.

So, earlier, we talked about extending the shelf-life of earned media with native advertising. Here’s an example of how McDonalds used a native ad on CNN to both extend the shelf life of a positive story and they extended the reach of that story.

It’s becoming increasingly common for our clients to promote their positive press to these larger audiences and extend the shelf life by using native ads in a similar fashion.

Native advertising challenges

Native ads are not without their challenges.

PR pros know that these ad units are served programmatically, but the nature of programmatic ad-serving can make for some pretty strange bedfellows. So in this example, how do you think Salesforce feels about their neighboring ads in this particular ad block?

The moral of the story when it comes to native is, if you don’t want your CEO to notice their brand’s native ad appearing next to a naked Julie Louis Dreyfus, it’s really key that you have a partner that understands how these platforms work, how to buy, how to target, how to optimize these campaigns AND how to keep your brand in a safe neighborhood.

Now let’s shift gears and talk about the other side of paid, which is sponsored content.

Sponsored content defined

Where Native ads are most typically teasers that direct you elsewhere to see the content, sponsored content lives in its entirety on the publisher’s web site or publication.

Sponsored content is created in a collaborative effort between brands and publishers.

And it usually involves telling an informative story that subtly weaves in references to the brand. We feel that, to be successful, sponsored content needs to provide real value to the reader. If it’s not educating or entertaining the reader, it’s simply not going to be effective.

And that’s a balancing act that our writers play with clients on a daily basis; really straddling that fence of telling a brand story and being promotional, and yet having editorial integrity and educating and entertaining the reader. It’s really critical.

Unlike the native ad’s pay-per-click model (most native ads are sold on a pay-per-click model when someone clicks on your ad unit), sponsored content is most typically sold on a price-per-campaign basis, and the pricing of sponsored content can vary significantly depending on the publisher or network you go with.

Who uses sponsored content?


Who uses sponsored content

According to the State of Native advertising report, just about everybody. Sponsored content is becoming an industry standard solution. Most publishers are offering it, almost half of brands are using sponsored content and it’s only increasing with agencies. And we anticipate that these participation stats are only going to climb.

So, as we looked at the slide above, publications of all sizes now have sponsored content offerings. What I think has been interesting has been to see the adoption of sponsored content from some large and venerable publishers.

Major publications are developing their own studios to create and host sponsored content. They usually employ a team that is separate from their core editorial team to produce content for their sponsored content offerings.

So, publishers like New York Times and CondeNast have sponsored offerings now. And then newer publishers like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and Forbes have their own offerings.

So on these premier sites the cost for a single sponsored content piece usually begins in the $50,000-$100,000 range and can go up from there. So these are not inexpensive placements to say the least.

Sponsored content formats

I thought this was an interesting example of a really effective sponsored content piece that Netflix did in partnership with the New York Times to promote a new season of Orange Is the New Black. It’s an in-depth interactive content piece that did a deep-dive into why the male model for incarceration doesn’t work well for women. It was an incredibly immersive and informative piece but was also branded for Orange Is the New Black.

It was disclosed as sponsored but, beyond that disclosure, it blended seamlessly with the editorial content and it certainly passes the test of either informing and entertaining the reader.

As it turns out, it worked really well. The campaign performed phenomenally. It was one of the best-performing content pieces, paid or unpaid, of the entire year that it ran for the New York Times.

The bottom line is: Consumers care much more about the quality of the content than whether or not is was sponsored.

So, where the major content studios are great for a single, impactful placement like the Orange Is the New Black example, at Brandpoint, we employ a network strategy to our sponsored content offering.

With Brandpoint, our clients can place a sponsored feature article, listicle or infographic on both the desktop and mobile versions of over 1,100 publisher sites. And our network of sites does include premium sites like LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, and obviously. many others. The difference is, it’s a small fraction of the cost you’d typically pay for a content studio placement on the New York Times, for example.

Sponsored content outcomes

There are several compelling reasons why brands are flocking to sponsored content.

We think the biggest (and most obvious) reason is to give their existing and potential audience a more relevant message. Because of its content-based format, brands are able to pack more into their sponsored content, than they can with other formats, and that really gives their audience something of value.

But sponsored content also encourages user engagement and can really boost brand awareness and word-of-mouth advertising.

So there are a lot of different benefits. It checks a lot of different boxes for our customers.

We’ve discussed a lot of benefits to sponsored content and adding it to your mix. We know that earned media will always be important, but as we all know, generating earned placements are not guaranteed.

Sponsored content allows you to publish the same editorial content with a guaranteed result. It’s not a zero-sum game. Our clients almost always use sponsored content campaigns to augment their earned media results. So they really do work well in conjunction with each other.

In some cases, sponsored content can actually outperform non-paid editorial. According to Chartbeat, half of the sponsored content on the New York Times outperforms their original editorial content

Sponsored content also aids in building credibility, by being on a credible site. According to a study by Edelman, brands receive a 33 percent boost in credibility when their content is placed on well-respected web sites.

Sponsored content challenges

Just like native advertising, sponsored content is not without its challenges. With the rise of popularity in sponsored content, it’s gained the attention of the FTC.

In December 2015, the FTC issued guidelines related to sponsored content and native advertising. There’s a lot in these guidelines that you should definitely read and familiarize yourself with.

But the two major tenets of the guidelines are:

1.) The content cannot be misleading or deceptive in either making claims or attempting to appear as actual editorial content.

The concept of “Fake News” that we all saw in our recent election cycle will, we believe, lead to increased scrutiny and enforcement around this aspect of the FTC’s guidelines. There’s clearly a consumer outcry around misleading or intentionally deceptive content.

2.) Disclosure must be clear and prominent.

If you are paying for a placement, it must be completely obvious to the reader that the content is sponsored.

So we really encourage you, as you’re looking at adding sponsored to your mix, please make sure you inspect that your partner or publisher knows and complies with all of the FTC’s guidelines. Because the issue is: ignorance is not a get-our-of-jail-free card. Everybody involved in the sponsored campaign is subject to these rules and is on the hook for penalties. So if you choose the wrong publisher and they’re not complying, your brand can still be culpable. That’s why we take compliance so seriously at Brandpoint, we have a duty to keep our clients safe in these issues. I know this is not recreational reading, to read FTC guidelines, but we encourage you to do it.

You can always check out the Brandpoint blog for more on how these guidelines might affect your agency or brand. We’ve written a bit about the subject.

Example of sponsored content

Now when it comes to disclosure, you don’t have to be as overt as the Onion is in this example. I think they’re intentionally going a little over the top.

Prominent positioning of the term “Sponsored Content”, “Paid Content” or “Advertisement” will do. You don’t have to say, “May the ox of journalism always be yoked to the cart of commerce.”

Finally on sponsored content, as we’ve discussed, to be effective, your sponsored content needs to be about the reader first and foremost. If you’re not educating or entertaining, it’s simply not going to be effective and you’re actually going to have the inverse result: You’re going to damage to your brand.

Here’s an example of what not to do from the Atlantic.

sponsored content gone wrong

This was a sponsored content piece so they do have the disclosure at the top. But it’s a puff piece for the Church of Scientology After receiving backlash from readers, it didn’t help the Church of Scientology’s brand, and the Atlantic was forced to pull the ad. They’ve since created very strict editorial guidelines on their acceptance of sponsored content.

A multi-channel strategy

While we’ve focused primarily on paid media for PR today, the real goal in today’s PR environment should be facilitating the convergence of a multi-channel strategy.

Back in the dark ages, reaching an audience was pretty straight forward.

In the not-too-distant past, we watched one of five televisions stations, we read our local newspaper, and we listened to a local radio station during our daily commute. If I wanted to reach you, it was pretty easy to figure out how to do that.

As we know, that world is long gone.

Today we live in an increasingly fragmented and media-bombarded world. According to the Altimeter Group, we each see about 3,000 brand impressions on a daily basis. It’s a staggering statistic. It’s like we live in a virtual Times Square 24/7. We’re constantly moving from screen to screen, and from print to online today.

As a result, focusing on a single media channel (be it paid, earned, shared or owned) or a single medium (online, print, broadcast, or radio), it doesn’t work anymore.

Today we have to focus on the convergence of our media channels and be everywhere our customers are.

The best strategy for connecting with and influencing customers today is, what Rebecca Leib (who I’m a big fan of) calls “Converged Media.”

converged media

Having a strong presence in each of these core channels creates synergies that increase the effectiveness of all of the others. When you’re in each one, it just makes everything else that much more effective.

Layering more paid media into your converged media mix can offer you both competitive advantages and increased client results in all of your channels.

Some final points

To recap before we conclude, earned media is still the holy grail. We get that. But, increasingly, Paid media is no longer a dirty word in PR. It’s a way to get results.

Native advertising provides immediate and measurable results. It’s most typically a piece of teaser content that blends with surrounding editorial and native ads can increase brand lift by up to 82%.

Sponsored content can facilitate high-quality, collaborative brand storytelling. It offers valuable information for consumers in a lightly branded fashion. Sponsored content can increase brand credibility by up to 33% based on the credibility of the sites the sponsored content appears on.

Finally, we’re only going to see more of this. A more integrated media model is only going to become more prevalent as we continue to become increasingly fragmented.

So those are our thoughts on paid media for PR. I sincerely hope we gave you a few ideas on how you can more effectively incorporate paid media in your overall strategy. We’re very thankful the time you’ve invested in being with us today and we will be emailing you all a copy of this presentation. If you have any questions or would like to learn more about Brandpoint’s services, we encourage you to visit our website,