Why The New York Times’ Sponsored Content Is Going Toe-to-Toe With Its Editorial

Can a native ad be as engaging as editorial content on The New York Times? The notion might seem like the stuff of a content marketer’s fever dream, but T Brand Studio—the custom content studio within the advertising department of the Times—is making pigs fly.

Earlier this month, The New York Times released the results of a study on the effectiveness of its native advertising platform, known as Paid Posts. Conducted in conjunction with real-time web analytics company Chartbeat, the study used metrics like unique visitors, active time on a page, and visits from Facebook, Twitter, and Google to gauge content performance from January to December of 2014.

Paid Posts created by T Brand Studio were compared with posts produced by advertisers and editorial content from the Times and other sites.

When measured against Paid Posts created by third-party advertisers, T Brand Studio-produced content was found to generate 361 percent more unique visitors and 526 percent more time spent with the post. But when evaluated against editorial content—articles with no advertiser affiliation at all—some T Brand Studio Paid Posts incited as much engagement as high-performing articles that run on

In relation to the 100 largest sites analyzed by Chartbeat, and each of their 1,000 most-visited articles, half of the Paid Posts produced by T Brand Studio last year outperformed editorial content.

“We’ve noted for quite some time that great stories can come from anywhere, and certainly from brands,” said Michael Zimbalist, SVP of advertising products and research & development at The New York Times. “This is part of the proof point that audiences will engage with great content regardless of its provenance, provided they have a sense of where it’s coming from.”

“We might say the objective of paid content is to deliver on some marketing goal, but we also want it to be good content,” said Josh Schwartz, Chartbeat’s chief data scientist. “The reason we can compare benchmarking against editorial is that we think paid content should be just as engaging.”

The study comes at a crucial time. Zimbalist’s claim that consumers won’t discriminate against quality branded content is a bet that media companies are making the world over by establishing content studios. Among the latest companies to form in-house native ad development groups are Condé Nast, iHeartMedia, and CBS Interactive.

So far, however, research on branded content has delivered mixed results. By some accounts, the level of trust consumers feel toward branded content is in the same range as content produced by publishers. That said, consumers have also reported they’re “concerned” about preserving objective journalism, with 6 out of 10 saying sponsored content hurts publisher credibility.

Why, then, are consumers responding so favorably to native ads like those produced by T Brand Studio? One factor, Zimbalist said, is the democratization of publishing tools and distribution platforms. With content now as likely to be produced by a blogger or a brand as by a publisher, the publishing industry has effectively been equalized. Consumers are learning they can get quality storytelling through untraditional means.

BI Intelligence and the Interactive Advertising Bureau report that native advertising will generate $21 billion in ad spending by 2018—more than four times that of 2013. In its 2015 Digital and Media Predictions report, research firm Millward Brown says the key to getting native ads right is to prioritize transparency, match the publisher’s editorial tone, and produce content that speaks to readers. In other words, native ads must be tailor-made for each site’s unique user base.

In the case of the Times, the posts that produced the highest levels of engagement were documentary-style in nature, offering a behind-the-scenes look at a unique environment: think profiles of New York City Ballet dancers, like those in the Cole Haan-sponsored “Grit and Grace,” or the popular “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” Though the latter was commissioned by Netflix to promote the series Orange Is the New Black, “Women Inmates” ranked in the Times top 1,000 articles last year.

new york times sponsored content

In its capacity to develop posts that outperform those made by advertisers, T Brand Studio’s publisher perspective helps as well. “We’re producing content separate and distinct from our editorial newsroom, but we’re using similar tools and storytelling techniques, because we know they’re effective with The New York Times audience,” Zimbalist explained.

Publishers that hope to achieve similar results should suss out what resonates with their readers in a similar way. “If we’re going to take away a conclusion,” said Schwartz, “it’s that content produced by people who are experienced at it—who think about both venue and audience—is content that’s more likely to engage.”

The New York Times study is the first of its kind for Chartbeat, but with marketers eager to quantify their native ad investments, it’s generating a lot of interest. “We reached a point in 2014 when native as a concept really blew up,” Schwartz said. “Now folks are taking a look at budgets to see how the campaigns they paid a premium dollar for really did.”

As they do, they can take with them the knowledge that high-performing branded content is no longer just a dream.

Image by Chameleon's Eye

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