The key to the best branded content? Tell less brand-centric stories.

Before becoming an independent consultant, Melanie worked at Time Inc. as director of creative strategy. She was the first editor of branded content at The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, and she helped launch the HuffPost Partner Studio. Melanie talks to Olga Nasalskaya about differences between native ads in magazines and newspapers, media’s unique value proposition in the age of every brand being a media, and shares tips on producing the best branded stories.

What’s your favourite brand story you worked on?

That would be the Netflix piece “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” for the New York Times. It was one of the most successful pieces, and it was one of the most satisfying projects to work on from the brand journalism perspective. We were able to tell a true story, and have a real impact which is always a great situation to be in. Just to give a different example, another piece is Cole Haan for the New York Times called “Grit and Grace” about the New York City Ballet dancers. Cole Haan had already established the relationships with the ballet, and three of the ballerinas actually appeared in Cole Haan ads before. So the team said they loved these ballerinas, and how talented they are, and they wanted people to see the hard work that they put in. What was fantastic about working with Cole Haan, is that at no point of the entire process were they trying to force the story towards the product. They really just wanted to showcase the hard work these girls were doing. You don’t often find brands who are willing to step away and truly tell a story about something they believe in. The final piece was probably one of the most beautiful that I had a chance to work on. 

Grit & Grace ()

When brands work with someone as big as The Times, they would not put more pressure on the creative process, even if they want to, because of The Time’s image. How do you say no to the New York Times? But what about smaller publishers, how should we manage clients’ expectations, and the reality of the production costs?

It helps to set up guidelines for what it is that you really want to do, and how much those things cost. One thing that I think we all understand is that this stuff does not happen for free. As long as production costs are detailed ahead of time, and you always have a pricing sheet that indicates the difference between production types, the process will be smoother. One of things that I stress all the time is there is no such thing as great branded content, there is only content that is presented in context. What works in the environment depends on what is typical of that environment. Newsroom journalism is very expensive to produce, too. For a local publisher, the type of campaign that Netflix had for “Orange is the New Black” would be way over the top. If you are a local production, it is totally feasible to produce something beautiful with just one video. You don’t need to bring a special high-profile director and a special photographer to do that. The campaign has to be in context. In order to stand out and “wow” readers of the New York Times, your campaign has to be on a completely different level. To stand out and “wow” people in your local market you might not need all that. It does not mean that local campaign would be less good, it just serves the needs of the context. I think there are wonderful opportunities for advertisers in local markets. 

Were you involved in both pre-sales and post sales operations at the Times?

Yes, it’s not typical for a single person to be involved in the pre-sales production and post-campaign. At that time (2014) T Brand Studio was a very small shop, with less than 8 people. We were all wearing multiple hats. I was in meetings with clients with our pre-sales team, wrote the content for many pieces because of my background, in journalism, was involved in social media campaigns to promote those pieces, and was involved in post-campaign measurement and analysis.

Should publishers be creating in-house branded content studios, or should they keep the team small and work with freelancers?

It depends on demand. Most of the studios that I know started with small teams. They had a few key people who managed freelancers. As more deals come in, those teams grow. Overall you want to have one person in charge of the entire operation, and one person in charge for each sub-department that you have, such as photo, video, strategy, etc.

How do you spark creativity for traditionally non-exciting subjects, for example, healthcare services, financial consulting companies?

For health care companies, it can be really difficult to create branded content because they are heavily regulated by the government. One way to approach this is to have a PRE-strategy. P stands for your product. The R is for the Role that product plays in the customers’ life. E is for the Emotions or thoughts that your product makes people feel. Advertisers have plenty of product-focused content. As a publisher, you can expand those other two layers, the role and emotions. A great example is Dove soap. They could just make a video on how to make your beauty routine faster in the morning, but their outer level conversation is video pieces where they have women talking about confidence and beauty. They found a way to tell stories and include an emotional conversation. For anyone who works in branded content studios, their role is to help educate and to give the best recommendations to the brands. Sometimes you don’t want to upset the client, or to push too hard, but I have made a career out of pushing back to try to teach brands to be more journalistic and tell less brand-centric stories.

Why do brands need media if they can create great branded content on their own and then just buy distribution space? Nike’s Margot vs Lily campaign has almost 20 million views on their YouTube channel.

There are three layers media can offer: we have content expertise, a targeted audience, and credibility. There are always going to be brands that have the budget and resources to bring storytelling in house. But most brands recognize the power of the audience that publishers have, because building an audience from scratch is very time-consuming and expensive. We will have clients who will come and say “we want your audience but we also want you to tell them our story.” So some advertisers may need just the story telling service, or just the distribution platform, but many need both.

Nike native campaign ()

Why have you decided to go freelance, rather than staying with one publisher?

The part that I have always loved about my job is the education side of it. I went to school for journalism, I am a storyteller at heart, and I love being able to share what I love about storytelling with other people to help them become better story tellers too. I can do this better and at a larger scale if I am a little more flexible.

Are there any differences in branded content formats for newspapers and magazines?

I think there is a difference but it depends on the individual publication itself. We forget sometimes that in native advertising, the word “native” is an adjective, and it means something is organic to its environment. For some newspapers and magazines, what’s natural for them might overlap. If you think about the audience of Fortune Magazine and the audience of The Wall Street Journal, there is probably some overlap. Something may be natural to both environments, and it has less the do with the stock of paper it is printed on, and more to do with what kind of content those publications normally produce.

Do you think there are any publishers that should not be in branded advertising?

Five or six years ago, people may have said The New York Times. I think any publication can do it with the proper kind of separation, as the case with the NYT. They have created such separation between the T Brand Studio team and the folks who run the newsroom side, that there isn’t a conflict there. There are some cases though when the reader may be more alarmed about native advertising, for a place like Consumer Reports. The whole reason why you pick up this publication is because you want an objective review of a product. If you have a paid review flying around there, number one, people won’t believe it, and number two, it may make them question how independent all the other reviews are. At the same time, you allow regular ads in Consumer Reports. If it’s just a mater of formatting the message in a different way, then you should figure out how to make sure at all costs that the labeling is clear and you are not tricking anyone. 

How should branded content be labeled, to satisfy all three sides: a reader, a client, and the newsroom?

The labeling needs to be absolutely clear. Nobody wins if the labeling is not clear. The readers get confused, and that causes them to reflect poorly on the brand. The publisher might end up losing the trust of their audience. If you’re the advertiser, and poor labeling causes backlash or means that nobody knows you sponsored it, thats a lose for you, too. Literally no one stands the benefit from unclear labeling. The only way for native ads to work is with clear labeling. As far as the best words, I don’t know whether “sponsored,” or “custom,” or ‘paid post,’ or “promoted by” would work better. There is and there will continue to be research on what’s the most clear way to label natives ads, and we might end up with the simplest word: “advertisement.”

How do we educate clients on KPIs of native advertisements, especially clients outside of the United States?

For those clients who are new to native ads, their instinct is to place it in the category with standard digital advertising. When we measure on a CPM basis, we create a very quantitative analysis of what works, so it helps to remind clients that in many ways branded content is almost more like PR. It functions much better for an awareness and engagement than for direct conversions. Content that performs best tends to be less branded, so we educate them about how to measure content on the editorial side; those metrics are very different. As a reporter or an editor, you don’t ask how many subscriptions did my article about Town Hall drive. I don’t think, in the history of journalism, a reporter has asked that question. It’s like dating… Say your newsroom is a bar, and advertisers come in. They want to talk to your people, at your bar. They could walk in and go up to every person individually and ask them to go home with them, but that’s not going to work well. They need to stay around, have an ongoing conversation, ask people questions, tell some jokes, bring some value before they start to talk about themselves too much.

Do you think that US native ads market has matured enough for other countries to follow its examples?

There are a lot of things that we did right, and a lot that we did wrong. Labeling is one area where we don’t have an answer yet, but we’ve figured out how you can price native ads, how you can package it. We established awards that showcase the best examples, so all of that can be used as guidance for those in developing markets. But the creativity should absolutely be there. So much of the success of content comes from context, and every market is unique. Great examples can be found at T Brand Studio. Their growth has been meteoric and I think their standards can provide a great model for other markets. I enjoy looking at some of the awards, DigiDay, OMMA, Native Advertising Institute.

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