Are Chat Stories the Future of Native Advertising?

After a brother and sister discover something mysterious about their parents, they start to investigate their own family. Eventually, they come to suspect that the clues they uncover may help find a missing woman from their neighborhood. This may sound like the plot of a new Netflix show, but believe it or not, it’s branded content.

“Mom’s Secret,” one of the many stories available on the chat fiction app Yarn, is actually sponsored by Skype. The structure is deceptively simple: Stories are formatted like text conversations between people. Think of it as the newest iteration of native advertising. Now, you might be wondering how Skype ties into a dark family melodrama. As the story progresses, the siblings communicate via Skype calls and share the video and images they discover through some of the platform’s features. It’s pretty typical product placement, yet because of the form, it doesn’t detract from the narrative that keeps readers engaged.

Unlike more traditional forms of content marketing or sponsored content, chat stories allow brands to embed themselves in the fictional narrative of the story, thus earning more brand exposure in the process. And it’s not just Yarn. Other apps like Hooked and Tap have rapidly become popular, especially with Gen-Z and millennials.

Chatting opportunities

With marketers continually on the hunt for a creative approach to brand awareness, chat story apps offer unique options for experimentation. Hooked crossed the 10-million user mark last year, and 69 percent of its readers fall between 18 and 24 years old.

User engagement with sponsored posts has been promising too. Skype’s first two chat stories (“Mom’s Secret” and “Still Searching”) have been viewed more than 5 million times on Yarn and boast a 6.3 percent click-through rate to the company site.

Yarn also partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts in 2017 to feature a story about teens afflicted by a curse that fully transforms them into the characters they dressed up as on Halloween night. The characters race around town to try to break the curse, eventually ending up in a Dunkin’ Donuts store where they encounter the one person with the power to end the spell. In addition to the standard chat format, the story also included multimedia elements like images and video. It became the most popular content on the app once released in addition to earning a shoutout for its creativity on Adweek.

As the platforms took off, brands started to get more comfortable, looking for novel ways to interact with their intended audiences. For example, brands that partner with Yarn can provide additional free access to stories for readers who haven’t subscribed to the app.

According to Peter Szabo, CRO and Head of Partnerships at Mammoth Media, parent company to Yarn, readers generally have to wait 25 minutes to read a new story in Yarn if they aren’t subscribers. However, they can access their next story immediately if they opt instead to watch a video ad.

“The day after we launched that feature in the fall we had people THANKING US FOR ADS in the comment section of the app store,” Szabo said via email. “I had to put that in all caps because, in all my time in ad sales at Pandora & Shazam, we never had anyone thank us for ads. But because the [sponsoring] brand is adding value to the user, they love it, and happily watch the ad in exchange for another episode.”

Picking partners

Wondering if your brand could ever find success with a sponsored chat story? Here’s how Yarn evaluates possible partners:

“First, we look for brands that fit into our readers’ demographic—generally 18-30-year-olds, both men and women,” Szabo said. “Secondly, we look for brands that can naturally fit into fun stories. […] Skype was a natural fit because we already had video chatting in some of our stories. We are able to feature the Skype interface in certain stories, as well as create three new stories … and they just happened to include natural Skype behavior within them.”

According to Szabo, 1.5 million users have read Skype’s sponsored stories thus far.

Steven Abrahams of Skype told me he’d encourage any brands interested in trying out this kind of content marketing to consider which metrics they’re trying to drive and to determine how they’ll measure those metrics from content. “I’d advise running the campaigns for several months in the app’s on-boarding flow if possible,” he said. “This will provide a steady stream of users new to the app and give you a benchmark for other platforms.”

The new native?

Native advertising has a complicated place in the media industry. It’s arguably the most divisive topic out there, viewed as everything from a necessary evil to a revenue savior. Are sponsored text messages any better than in-feed articles or videos?

Yarn’s partnerships with Dunkin’ Donuts and Skype signal the potential for sponsored chat stories, but chat stories are still in their infancy. We’re still at a point where the novelty aspect of what these brands do can overshadow the quality, good or bad. So it’s important to caution that venturing into a new medium like this comes with risk.

In any kind of native marketing, it’s not always clear whether brand mentions and promotion will seem organic enough to users. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there needs to be at least some branding for the company to benefit from the content. A 2016 Contently study found that 54 percent of respondents had felt deceived by native advertising in the past, and 44 percent weren’t even able to identify the sponsoring brand.

Ultimately, though, marketing professionals know that the battle to keep young people interested is constant. Chat fiction platforms offer a path that could potentially reach audiences without too much intrusive branding. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some new texts to read.

Image by Unsplash / CC Zero

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