Some brands have seen native content campaigns achieve extraordinary results. Sophy Buckley looks at how to mimic their success
Grabbing attention for your brand is hard. So hats off to Star Alliance, the airline group that got more than 1bn hits for its native content campaign in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in 2017/18.
Native content sees an advertiser paying a distribution platform such as the WSJ to carry its own written, audio or video content. The Star Alliance/WSJ native content campaign featured videos that challenged readers to find new things to try when they were travelling – building an igloo or going dog-sledding, say, if they found themselves on business in the Arctic Circle.
“It was one of the most successful campaigns we’ve ever run,” says Jim Piercy, creative director EMEA and Asia for The Trust, the custom content team at The Wall Street Journal | Barron’s Group. “The videos were quite long – on average about nine minutes – but they were interesting, informative and caught readers’ imaginations.”
The campaign ticked all the boxes for successful native content because it was original, relevant, informative, valuable to the reader and successful for the advertiser. But is it really that easy?
Fundamentally, whether native content is successful comes down to quality – of the platform’s audience and the content. And creating quality is never easy.
It all starts with audience
The first thing to do is qualify the audience, and here quality translates as being relevant to the brand. For small niche brands, a perfectly formed trade title might be just the ticket; for global brands such as Star Alliance, global platforms such as the WSJ as well as the Financial Times (FT) might be a better fit.
Both the WSJ and FT use algorithms to ensure digital content is placed in front of readers who have already shown an interest in the subject or fit the target demographic. Clare Allen, director of content at the FT, explains that the FT uses contextual targeting because showing people relevant content on what they’ve just read performs better than behavioural or demographic targeting, according to research.
The same is true at the WSJ. “It’s important to exist within an editorial environment that is relevant to the interests of your target audience. In the case of the WSJ, our paywall gives a filter and lens on who’s reading. This offers a useful level of data and analytics,” says Piercy.
Define campaign purpose
The next step is developing the campaign. Says Allen: “The campaign has got to fulfil the brand’s objectives, so it’s key to know what they are from the very beginning. If there is no defined purpose, how can you judge its success?”
These goals might be thought leadership, lead generation, brand awareness or perhaps promoting a white paper. Once they are ascertained, the campaign can start to take shape – and the likelihood of success is lifted by it being original, relevant and informative. According to Allen, it’s crucial to offer something useful that readers can take away.
Piercy agrees: “As an audience, we’re bombarded with stuff, so it’s my job to make sure there’s a reason for the audience to engage with the content. It must be entertaining, relevant and answer the question ‘Why am I reading this; what’s the payoff?’”
Both the WSJ and FT have experienced teams to help advertisers get this right. “Advertisers are often sceptical at first that they have something interesting enough to say, but I’ve done this for nearly 20 years and have never worked with a client that hasn’t had an amazing story to tell. The tricky bit can be convincing them what that story is,” Piercy adds.
Church and State
Both the FT and WSJ have writers, film-makers and graphic artists working exclusively on native content to ensure a clear line between editorial and advertising. They also use FirstWord writers for some campaigns.
As Piercy explains: “We apply the same rigour [to our content as to our editorial], but don’t let them cross over. That’s something our audience respects, which is really important as trust is a key decision driver for the advertisers.”
His words are echoed by Allen at the FT. “We’re very much Church and State,” she explains. “But the aim is to deliver something that looks completely at home among our editorial. It’s got to have the same values and be just as good as anything the editorial team publishes, while being important to the brand.”
Keep it collaborative
This process demands time from the advertiser and the availability of company subject-matter experts to discuss possible topics and give interviews. It’s from talking to people in the company that the campaign planners and authors glean valuable information to turn into content. This collaborative process can take anything from a few weeks to many months.
“You can hit the nail on the head straight away or it can take some digging to get all the information,” says Allen.
A recent campaign in the FT by Credit Suisse called ‘The Value of Knowledge’ was all about research. It used a mix of editorial and branded content formats based around some work by Longitude, the FT’s recently acquired thought-leadership arm. Branded and editorial content were distinguished with clear labelling to help the reader differentiate.
The partnership focused on Credit Suisse’s belief that investing in education worldwide will change the global economy for the better. The FT wanted to speak to the audience on a holistic plain, viewing them not only as individuals in senior business roles but as responsible forward-thinking citizens.
Says Allen: “The results were fantastic. Credit Suisse saw a 63 per cent uplift in readers perceiving it as promoting wealth creation to benefit present and future generations and a 30 per cent uplift that as a company it acts responsibly.”
Work the data
It’s a great example of the advertiser working with the platform and listening to the advice it’s given. Says Piercy: “One of the advantages of working within the native environment is that we have so much data on our audience. We can talk with authority about what the audience will engage with and have stats to back it up.”
Such data is the key to unlocking the prize. It means the platform will know if readers are interested in the history of the widget or if the advertiser is better off developing a campaign based on how the widget is about to change our lives. The teams can also advise on the content mix.
“Right now mobile is a really important channel and video and audio content are also very popular. But at the end of the day, the story must dictate how it is told. Sometimes a picture can tell the story; sometimes it has to be the written word,” Piercy says.
It’s also vital to take into account how the content is likely to be consumed. Today, many more readers look at their newspapers on mobile phones, for example. This means large infographics might not be the best format.
According to Allen, the best campaigns have a mix of formats – video, audio, written word and graphics or pictures. “We have noticed that our video formats perform very well. But we know they engage even better when they have a written introduction, for example. You really need an array,” she says.
The FT recently ran an innovative campaign called ‘Hidden Cities: Berlin’, which delivered just that.
FT Weekend teams worked with Google Assistant to give listeners about two hours of original audio content. Activated when users interacted with Google Assistant to play it at various points around the city, it included recommendations for places to explore, short stories and commentary from Berliners.
“The stats show users were really engaged by the audio experience,” says Allen.
Two hours of content seems a lot, but there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to length/quantity. Both Piercy and Allen recommend that a campaign contain several pieces, but that the size of each piece should depend on the story.
Says Allen: “We tend to recommend running multiple pieces. One story on its own will get old quickly and see high drop-off rates in terms of engagement. Engagement is definitely enhanced with frequency. We’re a news organisation and our editorial content is constantly updated in line with events. Similarly, we are learning to be a lot more reactive with our branded content, matching the immediacy of the newsroom.”
To this end Allen and her team are working on developing reactive native content within display formats. “It’s about keeping up with the momentum of the world around us,” she adds.
As for the view that our attention spans are getting shorter, Piercy brushes this aside. “Relevant content will find an audience. I always counter the short attention-span argument with the rise of box-set binge-watching. If people love it they will spend time on it,” he says.
Just how many people loved any piece of digital content is easily measured. Advertisers can expect to get feedback on number of views, how far the reader got, dwell time, the number of shares and whether readers come back. But Allen is quick to point out that it’s not always about getting super-high numbers. “Advertisers come to us for quality, not necessarily volume,” she says.
Most campaigns will have KPIs agreed between the advertiser and the platform, and the FT also offers what it calls a “brand uplift survey”, which measures brand awareness pre- and post-exposure to the campaign. “We are constantly evolving our metrics and measurements and find brand uplift is increasingly important for our advertisers,” Allen says.
If repeat business is anything to go by, it seems both the WSJ and FT are delivering what advertisers want. Indeed, FT native content revenues are rising by 48 per cent year-on-year. The WSJ has won plenty of awards for its native content, but Piercy cautions against setting too much store by this alone. “If the work doesn’t deliver for the client it’s all a waste of time,” he says.
Certainly feedback implies that’s not the case. “Advertisers putting out quality native content find they achieve a deeper engagement than when they use traditional advertising media,” Piercy says. Figures from the FT back this up. It says high net worth individuals have a 60 per cent higher engagement with promoted content than standard display options. So it really does all come down to quality.