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Wunderman Thompson Antwerp


How to create honest, interesting native ads

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

PhD researcher Simone Krouwer and strategic planner Chloé Van Elsen discuss native advertising and why transparency, creativity and respect are key to producing great content.

If you'd opened this article on a news website only to see the label, 'Sponsored content,' would you have kept reading? Perhaps, but you'd likely be more inclined to trust both the brand behind the article and the host site because they were so upfront, says Simone Krouwer, PhD researcher investigating labelling and transparency in native advertising on news websites at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

Advertisers are increasingly turning to native ads – paid ads that blend into the channel on which they appear, both in style and theme – to bypass ad-blockers and ad-averse audiences online. And through her studies Simone has discovered that, contrary to popular belief, making readers aware from the get-go that they're looking at sponsored editorial content can not only aid a news site's credibility, but also lend some of that trust to the brand paying for the promotions.

At the end of the day if you're making content that's interesting, suits the platform, and sees you "offer value before you extract value," adds our in-house digital and content marketing expert, strategic planner Chloé Van Elsen, then users won't mind who's funding it. Before I let Chloé and Simone discuss the topic in-depth, I'd like to preface their conversation by breaking down Simone's four key principles – known by the acronym, TREF – for developing great paid content (journalists and marketers, take note).

  • Transparency

    Your branded posts won't be more successful if they masquerade as the real deal. In fact, Simone has found that readers are more accepting of native ads if they're clearly labelled as such.

  • Relevance

    Brands are often experts in their fields, which means that readers will listen to what they have to say when they're speaking with authority on a relevant subject. But put the readers' interests before your brand message. Two of the biggest mistakes marketers can make are mentioning the brand more than once in the article, and producing content that readers don't care about and didn't ask for. So, don't create an article around your latest offering – start with the reader. How? Use the news site's insights to develop posts that users tend to like.

  • Educate

    This is a tip that news sites and journalists alike should keep in mind. Don't just label – consider adding extra information to explain why you're running the branded articles or posts. Do they help you pay your journalists' salaries? Was the article written by your journalists or, ideally, by an entirely separate, dedicated branded news team? There's no harm in telling the reader, just ask The Atlantic.

  • Focus

    Readers likely won't care if your content is sponsored, so long as it's relevant and interesting. Again, create articles and posts with their needs in mind and their clicks will thank you for it.

I sat down with both Simone and Chloé to delve into branded editorial content, its strengths, weaknesses and the ways in which we can ensure that it's worth reading.

Native ads have been around for a long time. How have they changed over the years?

Simone: Native ads are designed to have the look and feel of editorial content. It depends on the format, it depends on the platform – so a native advertisement could be sponsored posts on social media or news websites. They've existed for a long time, but they used to be more commercial and are becoming more native and the formats are becoming more varied.

Chloé: In the beginning of influencer marketing there were no rules and people weren't aware that, for instance, an influencer was working for a brand. So, influencer marketing was more natural than nowadays because now they have to state when they're running sponsored content and people are used to influencers making posts for a brand – it's more open. It has definitely professionalised and grown from something that was misleading and anonymous to something that is more regulated.

S: It's still not always as transparent as it should be, but I agree that it has professionalised.

Where in the marketing funnel would you suggest using native advertising?

S: It depends on the context. On news websites it is more top-funnel – about creating awareness. So, it's not very appropriate to make the call to buy a certain brand, unless, of course, it fits the context. So, in a fashion magazine, if you have an article about trends it might be natural to add a coupon or information about sales. But in a news environment it's typically more top funnel and about brand awareness.

C: I definitely agree that if you're focusing on a platform like news media then you're limited by that environment and to the expectations of the consumer within that environment. News media brands are evolving, too, and feeling the need to offer brands a full-funnel approach and solution. A great example of that is the campaign we did for NinaShopt with our content marketing hub. We made videos for JBC and they developed a mechanism to put a shop-able layer on top of her video so that viewers could actually shop what's being seen. I think that's an important development to close the funnel faster and really attribute a sale to the advertising effort.

Another initiative that comes to mind is Spott – it's an app you can use while you're watching a TV show to see what clothes they're wearing and actually shop them on your phone. It's a new technology that was developed a couple of years ago. Then, of course, the challenge with content like that is that it still needs to feel organic.

What are some of the strengths/weaknesses of native ads compared to other mediums?

S: Consumers are increasingly blocking traditional advertisements with an ad blocker or they try to avoid them. They naturally have more resistance when something really looks like an ad because consumers don't want to be influenced. But with native advertisement, even though they are aware that it is an ad, they naturally have less resistance against the message because it doesn't feel like an ad. Though if you really want to make a quick sale, I think traditional advertising might be the way to go. But to gain the attention of the consumer, to communicate with consumers and give them value, native advertising is effective.

C: Another important strength is the spill-over theory – if it's published on a credible news site, then the credibility that users attribute to the news site will often also spill over to the company commissioning native advertising. To an insurer, for example, being credible is immensely important because people put their trust in you.

What are some interesting ways to present branded content? What sites do it well?

S: The New York Times are doing it very well. In many cases, their native content outperforms other content.

C: I loved the Narcos example [below] – the interactive map – from The Wall Street Journal [in which they used graphics, interviews and photos to illustrate the cocaine trade]. This shows that branded posts shouldn't be limited to text or one format like articles – it could be anything.

S: Yeah, I really think the news publishers that are doing it well are the ones that are aware that native advertising is something totally different to traditional advertising – those are the news outlets that have a separate department or studio for creating branded content. They are also asking the advertisers to give them the freedom to really create posts that they consider valuable to the reader. They often have people with a journalistic background in their department and you can see that in the content – somebody who understands storytelling created it.

C: But I do have the feeling, and correct me if I'm wrong, that in Belgium we are late-stage adopters in terms of native advertising. So, perhaps The Wall Street Journal example is miles ahead of their current plan, but it should be an ambition and aspiration.


S: Yeah, in the Netherlands we do have some multimedia productions but of course you need a large budget and also scalability – it takes a lot of resources. But I definitely think that much more is possible than just creating a news article and you don't need a huge budget to create an interesting quiz, or a small video.

Along with simply viewing native advertising as news articles, what are some of the biggest mistakes you've noticed?

S: Some outlets don't do any research and don't know anything about the reader. It's still the case that brands approach media outlets and say, "This is our brand-centric message and we want people to remember this," and then outlets just create an article. A lack of transparency is another bad practice – they're not using a label, or they're using a label that's not clear at all for the reader.

C: Of course, you should do research about the reader, but you should also be careful to always make sure that there is a fit with your brand. It should always feel natural for the consumer that you, as a brand, are an expert in that topic and that you have something to say, because if there's no reasonable connection, then the consumer won't feel like you have anything to say.

S: Yes, it should be legitimate – especially in a news context where it's often more informational and less about entertaining. You need to make sure they consider you a credible source.

C: And always make sure you add some kind of value as a brand. I think a great example was Tele2 where they wrote an article about hacks and then included a downloadable e-book at the end. That's a great example because you then offer value before you extract value – you give the consumer something before you expect them to give you their email address, for example. And that is something we at Wunderman like to call the Content Currency Framework. Our content should always provide value, whether that's information, education or just entertainment – it could be anything, but you should offer something to the consumer.

What would you say to journalists who are worried about the impact of native advertising on their credibility?

S: Studies show that it doesn't have to impact the credibility of the news outlet if it's done well. But transparency is very important, and also the separation of the editorial department and the sales department – people like to call it separation of church and state [laughs]. That's something we should really keep. Especially in a news context.

C: Yeah, agreed.

S: And journalists should see it as an opportunity to produce revenue and be more creative. The Orange Is The New Black production on The New York Times, for example, would have cost a lot of money to create – they might not have been able to create that article with just an editorial budget. So, it can offer opportunities and they shouldn't be scared of it if they are transparent.

There's a fine line between transparency and prominence – your authenticity can be impacted if your brand is too prominent. What's a good balance? How much is too much?

S: I have some qualitative data in which readers say they don't want to have too many native ads, but how many is too many? I don't really know. But I think you should respect the fact that readers come to a site for news. So as a brand, you can act in that environment as well, but you should do it with respect for the reader. You can do some research yourself – some usability tests. How much will be tolerated also depends on the context – the type of news website.

C: But I think the key takeaway from your research is clear labelling, and then minimising the brand mentions within the item itself.

What paid content trends do you expect to see in news media in the future? Where do you think it's going?

C: There are so many different channels you can use for content marketing. But in terms of news media, native content marketing isn't one of the first touchpoints we think of. It depends on the audience – the consumer. And often, the quickest and easiest way of reaching the consumer is via social media because it's easy, it's fast, it has a broad audience that can be targeted in detailed ways, which means the measuring is very fast. You can easily see who has viewed it.

S: Yes, those are some issues. Though I think that native advertising in news media will continue to grow because they are improving their data analytics, and some can already offer personalization/targeting options. And of course, it's getting really crowded in the social media environment.

C: Yes, I completely agree.

S: But on a news site, there's less competition and you have a guaranteed number of eyeballs on your content, so I do think it will keep growing. I think the quality will increase and also the creativity – agencies will play a great role in this. At Wunderman, you develop a lot of creative concepts and it would be great if you could collaborate with news media to improve the quality level of the native advertisements. That's my take on that, but I'm not a fortune teller [laughs].

C: No, I fully agree with your take, and we have to look for new ways to reach our consumers because it is getting crowded and competition in digital advertising is super high.

What would you like marketers to take away from this discussion?

S: Really start with the reader when you create native ads. Respect the reader – even though you're paying money to create it, you should be aware that the post shouldn't be advertising to the reader. Take the time to investigate what the reader's looking for, understand the reader, and think like a publisher. It's a different type of advertising so you should approach it as editorial content, and only then can you create stories that have a lot of value in them.

C: In addition, I'd reiterate what we said earlier – give value before you extract value. Don't just expect them to buy, buy, buy. The relationship between a customer and a brand should be a two-way street.

Find out more about Simone's research here (English) and here (Dutch), then get in touch with Chloé to discover how Wunderman can help you develop creative, audience-friendly content.

Author: Alexandra Sutton, Copywriter at Wunderman Antwerp