The 4 Elements of a Perfect Sponsored Content Campaign

Each year for the last several, advertisers have increased their spending on content marketing, publishers have announced the formation of designated teams to produce it, and ad tech companies have raced to find new ways of measuring the impact of campaigns.

In this race to the top, we’re constantly asking ourselves as an industry, “What’s working?”

A common example of a native piece that “worked” is “Women Inmates,” the paid post for the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black that ran on The New York Times website last year. I’m biased, of course. I wrote it. So like anyone with a background in journalism, I’ll bring in some other sources:

According to a study by Chartbeat, “Women Inmates” was among the top 1,000 most trafficked articles on in 2014, putting it among the top 1.47 percent of all NYT digital content that year. Digiday gave it an award for Best Branded Video Destination, and MediaPost gave it the OMMA for Best Native Advertising Single Execution. John Oliver called it “about as good as it gets” in a segment mocking the practice of native advertising that has now been viewed more than 4 million times, and a group of students from Roskilde University in Denmark even wrote an entire thesis on it.

But it didn’t just happen. So many factors need to align for a campaign succeed at that level.

So what four things do you need to make sure your partnership produces one of the greats—a win-win-win that resonates well with a publisher’s readership, captures the hearts and minds of the brand’s target demographic, and gains the attention of industry reporters and award judges alike?

1. The content focuses on something the brand has the power to speak about

We consume brand content all the time, from on-package recipes and the instruction manuals of our favorite products to The Lego Movie. It’s not that we don’t think brands can deliver truthful, useful, entertaining or informative content; in fact, 74 percent of people trust brands to deliver educational content on their particular subject area, according to a Kentico study. The trick is identifying the right area and expanding it just enough to include something new.

Don’t just create content about the product or service; rather, think about the surrounding factors. How and why do people engage with the product or service? On what occasions or holidays do they engage with it most or differently, and why? How do they feel when they engage with it? When they use it, what are they trying to accomplish (or avoid)? What kind of content would help make that experience better?

If the brand produces cake mix, for example, the obvious choice for content creation is recipes, and consumers will want and need that. But what if you went a bit deeper and thought about why someone would be making a cake in the first place? Chances are, they’re looking to create a holiday experience with a personal touch, so you might also be able to deliver DIY instructions for party decorations or a guide for what to write in greeting cards for every occasion. Advice on what to wear to the party might be a stretch, as fashion falls outside the area of creating a personal party experience (not to mention a cake mix company’s area of expertise) but there’s still a lot of latitude to work with.

One pitfall to avoid: product pitching. That same Kentico study revealed that even “signing off an otherwise objective blog post or newsletter with a product pitch will bring the content’s credibility level down by 29 percent.” Focus on providing value to the reader, not pushing product.

2. The content is created with the right people in mind

Once you’ve determined what the brand is able to talk about, it’s important to determine who exactly the content is being created for. The more you know about your audience, the more your can tailor the content to their specific interests and ensure the content is providing a unique perspective in the crowded landscape.

The cake mix brand outlined above might already have a buyer profile that says the typical customer is a busy health-conscious 22- to 54-year-old woman with children, an above-average household income, and a list of passions that include family, DIY projects, food, travel, and taking photos of the things that are important to her. This might tip you off to an additional opportunity to create guides for healthy recipes, travel-inspired birthday cakes (like a Hawaiian-decorated coconut-pineapple cake… yum), or tips for incorporating family photos into holiday celebrations.

3. The content appears in the right place

Once the content themes have been defined and the audience identified, it needs to be distributed in the correct place. The choice of a publisher or platform partner (or partners) is influenced by the themes and the audience in equal parts: You want that content showing up in a place where users would look for or expect content on that topic, and you also want it to be a place where your target audience is the one doing the looking.

This is a delicate balance, and it requires that brands, agencies and publishers alike be self-aware. Context is key in creating content that works; even the best list of DIY birthday party decor ideas will be ignored on a business-focused site where it might be sandwiched between white papers, the same way a quarterly report would be ignored (or worse, ridiculed) if it was bookended by delicious looking recipes.

For our hypothetical cake company, this might mean distribution of recipes to the target audience on MyRecipes and on Pinterest, where the target audience often turns for recipe advice. But the crafty party decor content might be more at home in the pages of Real Simple,where readers expect tips for family-friendly projects and entertaining, and a guide for saving money on a do-it-yourself celebration might perform best in All You, alongside other savings and DIY content.

4. The content has dressed the part and fits in

As people navigating the real world, we don’t present ourselves exactly the same way in every possible situation. We alter our clothing, our tone and our behavior depending on whether we’re interviewing for a corporate job or heading out for a night of dancing with a love interest. The same needs to hold true for your native content. You need to present yourself well, while still being true to who you are.

Once you know where the content will be presented, recognize what users will be seeing just before and just after they engage with the native content. Whether you’re an agency, brand, or publisher, insist that your native content matches or exceed the quality of editorial content around it. Insofar as publisher and industry standards allows, use similar formats, navigational tools, and visual cues so that the content is adding to the reader’s experience, rather than detracting from it.

But this doesn’t mean you should be deceptive. Just as putting up a front on your first date won’t get you to the altar, a poorly labeled native piece can result in disappointed readers, damage to the publisher’s credibility, and negative sentiment around the advertiser. Use consistent labels that clearly identify the creator of the content and disclose the involvement—or lack thereof—of the publication’s editorial staff. These prominent labels, in combination with special coloration and other signifiers, can mean the difference between an authoritative and transparent partnership and a deceptive piece of quasi-editorial.

The recipes our cake company presents on Pinterest need to have the high-quality visuals that users expect from other food-based Pinners, with the recipe name layered over the image and some details about ingredients and process in the caption. When that same recipe is presented on publishing partners’s website, though, it might be presented as a gallery of images with step-by-step instructions, or an in-kitchen video, depending on the site’s convention.

It’s not easy to create a campaign where the brand can speak authoritatively about a topic, to the right audience, in a well-chosen venue and under the conditions that meet expectations, but it’s well worth the work to make sure your content partnerships end up listed among the greats. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find yourself on the right side of a John Oliver segment.

Image by Graja

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