Time to go native? How PRs can get the best out of the ‘new advertorial’

How do PR professionals ensure they are getting the most from content, and context, when trying to secure significant engagement between clients and their audiences in a creative, innovative and cost-effective way?

By Maria Loupa

A few months back, at CIPR HQ in Russell Square, the London GLG Committee had a great panel share their thoughts on the value of advertorials in 21st century communications – it’s been a while, but since this topic is all the more relevant, we wanted to share a few highlights; especially with advertising spend set to reach $253bn by 2018, it’s definitely an untapped market worth exploring for communications professionals. Our panel included Tiffanie Darke, Creative Content Director, News UK (@tiffaniedarke), Jon Tickner, Creative Development Director at IPC Media, and Samantha Cope, Creative Editorial Director at Trinity Mirror plc (@SamanthaCope2); they all provided valuable insight from their respective publishing houses, with their host being former GLG Chair Julio Romo (@twofourseven).

The event kicked off with an introduction of what the speakers’ jobs entail. They all work as part of internal creative departments a lot of comms professionals in the audience didn’t even know existed, to help brand and comms teams create better content solutions for their clients. Sam Cope works within a team of 40 people, from account directors, to designers and everything in between, who make-up the Invention team; it’s been more than a year since Trinity Mirror launched its creative content studio and Sam works across their portfolio of news brands. Trinity Mirror has 110 regional titles, which means campaigns need to be able to talk at a local level, while maintaining a national impact.

Tiffany Darke’s team is Method, the strategic content agency at News UK. They work with The Sunday Times, The Times, The Sun and the entire News UK portfolio; they have cached a creative agency, Method, to produce content for advertising partners across sites, and they now have a sales’ arm and a customer management arm, offering an end to end experience, working with brands on creative campaigns they want to activate. Jon Tickner’s team at Time Inc, work with over 60 media brands and offer their cross-platform editorial expertise, and much more, focusing on a variety of topics from men’s hobbies, to mass market women’s publications such as Woman’s Own, Marie Claire, Wallpaper and Ideal Home.

Why media organisations form creative agencies

The conversation started by discussing what forces media organisations to form creative agencies to develop solutions instead of using PR agencies, content and advertising agencies. All speakers agreed that they know their audiences and the audiences’ needs, that’s why they are the best people to do this instead of a ‘generic’ agency. One of the many interesting things when working with media owners is that brands have the opportunity to work with a platform where people are hunting for content on. “It’s then that you realise certain things about the British public that you can’t assume, unless you’re working with them every single day. They are not marketeers, and that’s a bonus in a sense, because they are like a very intelligent consumer”, as Samantha commented. “We can offer valuable insight in what we call “Modal Britain”, the changing face of Britain which, at the middle percent, has grown and flattened in its wealth, distribution and attitudes”.

Tiffanie commented, “There is currently an ‘agency fight’ – you have digital, social, advertising, video agencies; brands have 6-7 agencies working for them and they have to co-ordinate all of these messages, as part of the whole shifting media landscape right now. It’s all about what’s relevant and useful, and who’s providing the best content and responses”.

However, PR definitely has its place in the paid space, as much as the editorial, as PR professionals are in the best position to broker this kind of deals. They are uniquely positioned in that they understand the publishers, and the audience, and the commercial side of things because they work for commercial clients and understand both sides of the contract. Tiffanie added “It’s a real opportunity for PR professionals. You already understand the audience, so you will sit halfway between us and the client. It’s a useful tool as well for you, especially for pitches and presentations to the client, as you can say ‘we spoke to the Times and they said this and that’.”

A word on audience

Content now flows across platforms, however, there’s still a large print audience present, according to the panel. “There is massive value, trust, massive circulation and communities from both a regional and a national perspective. Communities are everything – it’s a range of people who readily want to engage with you, so brands shouldn’t bother if they can’t manage this engagement”, Sam commented. Increasingly, with digital, where brands are publishers and there is an awful lot of commercial content, the bar has gotten higher. According to the panel, advertorials were considered “second” class, and the quality would have been almost purposely lower so that people wouldn’t confuse it with editorials. In Tiffanie’s word, “the truth is, that people don’t mind watching a good video if it’s for Nike or Coca Cola. So why not make it really good content, engaging and as good as an editorial?”

The panel briefly touched on market differences and similarities from an audience perspective. Jon commented “Although it’s hard to say whether the UK audience is different or not, I feel it may be more similar to the French than we may think, and different to Americans. In general, most clients aren’t set up to have such a global voice, unless it’s a completely clean of character, cross-territory voice that is entirely meaningless to anyone”. Tiffanie added: “Sadly not many clients appreciate buying globally and tailoring to markets – and we all have clients like that. Great, this campaign means nothing; PERFECT!”.

However, there is content that is more ‘transglobal’ and can break down barriers. As an example of this, Jon said that the audience shows an increased interest in ‘comparison’ pieces, especially around sporting or music events, such as the Ashes; i.e. an Australian and UK comparison of the Ashes’ coverage always performs quite well. Samantha added that hyperlocal has been giving their team a real edge, as they can reach people at a very local level, with topics that matter to them, such as the NHS.

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Leveraging social media communities

According to the panel, a few of the key trends for 2016 are unquestionably mobile and video, as well as personalisation. Social media communities swing content very fast and are pretty much asked to spend their time and money when they can get a lot of it for free. That’s why media organisations have a growing responsibility to let them know when content is of editorial or advertorial nature. As Tiffanie mentioned, “A neat way around it that’s kind of a shortcut currency for everybody, is to hashtag/label it ‘spawn,’ so that they know it’s not purely editorial”.

The audience needs to be offered both high quality editorial and advertorial content for them to consume. It would almost be like undermining them, if it was assumed that they’re not interested in commercial content, in print or online; commercial message can and should be the level of editorial. “Advertorials never really concerned the audience per se; it’s all about respecting audiences enough to entertain them along the way,” according to the panel.

“If you’re fulfilling the product for engaging with the right audience, if you raise it to that level, you simply can’t fail. And that’s always a long battle, to reach it to the level it should be and educate clients accordingly. In terms of content, editorial is way more issue-based, so that’s the best way to approach it, by making your content more relevant”, the panel agreed. Different platforms simply require different content. Tiffanie explained, “If we’re running a business campaign for Santander for example and they want some Facebook activation, it would dry as a shriveled raisin, so you have to find creative ways around it. For Xbox, we did something around pig semen that did really well on Facebook, as it was a funny, Facebook-friendly post.”

Communities can empower a brand, and adding a certain tone of voice to advertorials can help brands reach them. When it comes to TOV and different platforms, the ‘would a C-suite’s daughter read/understand this’ test doesn’t always apply. “We’re humans, therefore different to each other, and that’s part of the beauty of the media world; if your daughter isn’t reading the print version product, who says that others aren’t? And if you’re a C-suite working in banking, why on earth are you looking at your daughter? She’s not your target audience”.

Furthermore, the panel argued that their teams can provide insights that only media organisations can – they can approach a huge national and regional audience via social media. They use reader panels of around 6-7k people, who can provide feedback anonymously and unknowingly, by their interactions on the content.  As an example, Tiffanie mentioned that they ran a campaign around perceptions on an online shopping brand by the panel, with the goal to justify cart abandonment. As it turned out, none of the values to purchase were what the client thought, which were the fit of certain ranges and difficulties in the return process. It was simply that potential customers couldn’t picture themselves in  any of the products, so it was just a matter of approach.

How editorial and advertorial work together

Regardless of a budget on a marketing campaign, the panel underlined that publishers can never promise editorial space as it’s not best practice, regardless of how big a marketing budget is for a campaign. Tiffanie commented, “Editorial credits are offered in their own way and media houses need to be accountable; and if you’ve been promised, you need to ask for it. We try to facilitate conversations as much as possible and produce content of the highest possible standard to be able to achieve this. An example of this was McMillan – they are already successful in what they do; they wanted to reach a new audience, so a campaign we did for them opened the door to conversations with the features desks and lead to editorial. Explaining the aspects of the campaign allowed them to alter their PR approach.”

The editors always have the final word; if there is anything of editorial value, they will use it. Tiffanie added “We had a big retailer, who bought Sunday Times’ four page pull-out on the main news section, and they were convinced this was worth a front page news story; especially during the weekend of the Paris attacks, everything got wiped out”. It’s all about providing investment for editorial and serve up the client with something that is directly on brand, that you know will totally engage the reader; you’re not taking readers’ eyes away, you’re just giving them more content to consume”, Tiffanie explained. “Last week as part of the Vodafone campaign, we worked on a start-up list with the Times’ editorial team – an ‘everything you need to know’, hands-on guide and an overview of the best start-ups. We said to Vodafone, “do you want to get involved?” and we produced something really good, that transcended to editorial.”

“Integration is everything in quality press, and there are always ways to open conversations towards this; a few more consumer-focused sectors are ‘easier’, like travel, film, charity (CSR angles) – if it’s a bank for example, it may be tricky to get them on the Telegraph; and it should be. It’s integrity that makes up our products.” Advertorials are sense-checked to fit in seamlessly, clearly marked and of the same standard and feel as editorials. The panel agreed that if content is tailored to be part of the publication and add value to the product, then the readers will back it. Sam shared another example of this “We’re run a  blood-donation campaign as a case study and ended up running it as a feature – it’s what we call ‘earned editorial’”. The advertorial team like to get the editorial’s perspective all the time, in terms of testing new products they’re developing; it’s an amazing resource due to its immediacy, and very good for AB testing. Ultimately, media houses can provide a combination of insight from editorial, creative teams and reader panels.

Church and state – direct editorial conflicts

“As a media owner, you have to not be greedy, and choose the right clients carefully. We once had a cereal brand and they insisted on working with us on a campaign to highlight how healthy their cereals are, but actually, across all our titles we’ve been telling everyone how unhealthy they are, making their children obese; so we decided we weren’t going to pitch for this campaign, as this would cost on integrity and readers’ trust. Regardless, even if we put something on the advertorial side that directly contravenes, the editor will chuck it out”, Tiffanie commented. Sam’s views reflected this “Our audiences trust us and trust editorial teams, so when it comes to KPIs, it’s always readers first. If we know our audiences aren’t going to like something, we are not going to run it”.

Setting benchmarks

“There is massive value on top of the traditional channels, that is why when working on multi-platform campaigns, there is a growing need for our industry to measure and monetise our social media strategies”, Jon commented. Tiffanie added, “Martin Sowers, Mr WPP, was quite clear that the bar for measuring digital engagement is really low and needs to be higher, because people aren’t engaging with it the way they would engage with a print or a native digital product.” There is also a disparity of ad spend compared to the reach of print and the reach of mobile. When it comes to ROI of print sales, these offer more ‘solid’ calculations; mobile channels are enormous and cannot be sold out in the same sense; their reach is in the  millions, but clients don’t buy as much as they should and don’t use it as innovatively as they’d like. Tiffanie added “Have you seen a piece of mobile advertising lately? It’s a really annoying distraction – if you watch someone reading a newspaper, they have a one to one relationship spending 20 mins reading it, which is really interesting in the online era”.

In terms of measuring results, Tiffanie mentioned that her team use Unruly, the video sharing agency; they predict how successful a campaign can be, not by views but by shares. They use a different way of measuring engagement, a different level of analytics. Other agencies may run top 10 videos in terms of views for example, but anyone can buy views by buying space. The key is behind paywalls, measuring real engagement, not via watch. Facebook is trying to go in with publishing organisations, and its targeting has certainly the ability to target, as Tiffanie mentioned, but the issue is the level of engagement they claim; “video view is 3 seconds, as much as it takes you to scroll from the top to the bottom of the screen, which a lot of sensible people would argue is not a decent level of engagement”.

“Have any metrics ever made any sense at all?” Jon added. “Don’t always measure it – I’d argue that, in our lives, not all things are about sharing nor are solid or can be measured. It could be that someone clicked the wrong link and they’re trying to close the video; we all need to be honest and that’s not easy when a client is asking for something that’s not possible”. As an example of this, Jon mentioned that his team worked on a campaign with “Time To Change”, around depression and mental illness. “People immediately switch off when they feel uncomfortable, and they may not share content due to the associations attached. So we needed a different way to measure results beyond video shares; we reached out to our regular celebrity contacts and that became our social campaign, simple to do and easy to measure”.

Evidently, reader panels are also part of every campaign produced and every report sent to clients; they are used usually at the beginning, middle, and end of the campaign to measure effectiveness. As an example, Tiffanie mentioned a Hunger Games’ campaign from last year “We ran a feature around ‘what you need to know if you haven’t watched it’ by the reader panel; three weeks later, they have acted upon it by watching the movie, because we triggered their curiosity”. Tiffanie added “You’ve got to be able to measure; digital platforms need to be measured real time, that’s why they are unique”.

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How to work with media houses on content solutions

The panel agreed that it’s best to get in touch with them at the beginning, get them involved early so they can draft a content plan based on their audience insight. Tiffanie commented, “the sooner we can get around the table, the better. Be open and truthful – say we have a brand, and these are their challenges; for brands, it’s easy to focus on product facts, but we can advise in depth as we know that these facts alone are not always engaging with people”.  The next steps are for the planning team, the PR team and the brand to sit together, and use audience insights to come up with the central concept, which will later be broken down by platform.

In terms of budgets, Sam and Tiffanie highlighted that no budget is too small, as they’ve run campaigns between £10-30k, while Jon’s team worked with a client who simply wanted all the potato recipes in their archive; “we had about 12,000 they bought 5 and they didn’t cost a lot at all, almost the combined change in our pockets right now, so I’ve beat you both!”.

 


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