If publishers and CMOs can’t work together, native advertising won’t survive

For native advertising to work to its full potential, marketers and publishers need to start communicating more effectively, and stop just throwing money around. Otherwise, campaigns are doomed to become simply "more noise for people to ignore on the internet", argues Alexandra Tselios.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from marketing directors when discussing native content is along the lines of “I had an article published on XYZ site and got nothing out of it”.

Alexandra Tselios

Often, when you probe deeper into this assessment you find three glaring issues:

  1. Unrealistic expectations of the result one or two articles can deliver.
  2. Misunderstood messaging tones for either that publication’s audience or the product or services mandate.
  3. Unclear measurements around what success would look like for that article. It has to be more than just click through rate (CTR) and views.

Usually this results in the publication shrugging away the problem (“Hey, I published it – job done”), the media agency or PR agency trying to explain the minimal metrics (if any), and the marketing team justifying why that one piece of content didn’t really convert.

I recently sat with a client who had spent $30,000 on one article being published on a well-established website for women, with really impressive numbers. She lamented about the fact that whilst the cost was big for their budget they went ahead with the buy knowing the site had a ‘cult following’.

However the article written by the site appeared rushed and ultimately had no strategy behind it. In fact, the writer responsible for the piece didn’t even contact the company’s marketing team; she just went off the dot points from a press release. Sure, the agency mediating the buy approved it, but the cracks in communication were evident and costly.

When it comes to unrealistic expectations, it is imperative to understand that multiple touch points are required for a campaign to be successful, and that frequency across an audience set (not in the context of display banners) is just as impactful as the audience reach and demographic segmenting. Therefore, both the brand and the publisher must have a clear understanding of the strategy, length of time, and focus points that the content needs to deliver over a staggered period of time.

With frequency comes responsibility – 10 pieces of published content, not strategically set out to ensure certain goals, risks resulting in content which readers ignore, publishers resent being associated with and brands resenting paying for.

The problem often still lies with internal tensions for publications. Whilst recognising that good native content is becoming more crucial to their revenue strategy, many still don’t know how to navigate this in a way that is palatable for their own readers. The key mistake people make here is assuming that the substance of commercially driven content could not possibly be of as much value to readers as the editorial component of their publication.

The most interesting part of approaching a native content campaign is coming up with a strategy that aligns with the outcomes required by the brand. Publishers can only be as good as the brief they receive – but the onus is also on them to ask the right questions and probe deeper into the messaging requirements. This can only be achieved if both parties take the time to understand each other’s expectations. It simply must be more than: “I published 800 words, here is my invoice and here is the CTR it received”.

The question is: How do publishers and marketing teams work together to ensure that money poured into content results an in-sync, impactful and engaging experience for readers? When discussions around fake news and deceptive practices result in questions being posed such as ‘Do advertorials sully the reader?’, how do we as publishers justify the business model if we aren’t totally committed to driving hard results, backed by data?

The ambiguity around this also extends to both paid and unpaid content. An article given to a journalist and packaged as an engaging and interesting story around an app, product or service is still a form of advertising, despite not being labelled as such. The difference being where the money exchanged hands – in this case, usually at the PR team level, not the publisher or agency level. But the message is the same: positioning, awareness and ideally, selling.

So how, can publishers effectively service all components of their businesses – both at an editorial level and a commercial level?

When an editorial team commissions articles, schedules themes, and determines how the day runs from a content perspective, the pressures are always centred around:

  • Will the pieces be read?
  • Are the pieces compelling enough to share?
  • Will they serve the audience?

I think these three benchmarks should also be applied to content produced alongside agencies or brands. However, these questions simply cannot be accurately determined by external parties. The burden of responsibility lies with the publisher to prove the value as much as the planners who agreed to the campaign. It is simply, in my view, poor practice to assume that by branding a piece of content and publishing it, you have provided an effective product worthy of the sale price.

I also don’t believe it can be truly native content unless it’s been written by the team/writers from the actual publication. I can tell when a third-party content agency has provided the content for other publications and been slapped in for publishing. It is easy to spot, and readers generally will skip it – you can tell by the engagement on the article.

You must understand your audience and what they actually care about, and if you get that right, you have a higher probability of delivering native content that converts. The only way to effectively work alongside both brands and readers is to see both parties as crucial to the success of the publication. That means approaching the content production from the reader’s perspective, and approaching the measurement and metrics from the brand’s perspective.

A CTR and impressions report is not sufficient ROI. Publishers should put the same value on the data and engagement we apply to editorials as we do to our native advertising. We cannot do this without directly working at a more nuanced level with the team responsible for the brand’s outcomes. It takes longer and it requires more strategy, but the ROI allows a more effective and sustainable practice. Each brand or campaign has a different ROI, so the metrics placed across all commercially driven content published cannot have a one-size fits all approach.

If 500,000 people read the article then they achieved brand awareness, but if the goal was to sell 100 seats at the theatre and the campaign couldn’t attribute any data to this outcome, then I would deem that a massive failure. The audience size within a media kit becomes less crucial than the engagement level for that publication.

The engagement and value served from any published piece is equally as crucial as the audience reach – it can’t be one or the other. Scalability in distribution is easily achieved in-house with ad technology, and when you have a very targeted approach, it becomes be fully aligned with the needs of both the readers. Understanding this third-party data and how to use it helps to ensure your content production and distribution delivers the outcomes required from the campaign. Otherwise, you are serving glorified advertorial that serves no one.

The expectations around a campaign become muddied when the publisher and the CMO are not aligned, yet there is a greater level of granularity in the strategic level of approaching each individual piece of content when both parties see each other as partners not crudely vendor/suppliers. Otherwise, it’s just more noise for people to ignore on the internet.

Alexandra Tselios is the founder and publisher of The Big Smoke Australia


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