The many flavors of native content

A story about smartphone use in emerging markets appeared on Quartz Wednesday morning. The byline at the top is that of Donald Fitzmaurice, the CEO of Brandtone, who wrote the introduction and the conclusion. The rest of the piece comprises short country reports from Brandtone employees in South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey. The ostensible message of the piece is about smartphones. The real message of the piece is “hey, look at us, you might not have heard of us, but we’re thought leaders in the mobile space, and we’re in lots of different countries around the world”.

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Quartz has a substantial amount of “sponsor content” on the site (see this, for instance), all of which comes with a disclaimer at the bottom saying something like “this article is written by Chevron and not by the Quartz editorial staff.” The Brandtone piece is not sponsor content: it was solicited by Quartz editors, not Quartz sales staff, and is pure editorial content, tweeted out as such. But at the same time it’s exactly what the sales staff would like Quartz’s sponsor content to be: a “native” way of reaching readers — something which reads like a Quartz news story — which also improves the reputation of the company responsible for publishing it.

There’s nothing particularly innovative here. Op-ed pages have long relied on contributed content, much of which can be excellent. Still, it’s worth looking at who’s getting the most value out of deals like this, where Quartz gets smart (and free) copy, while the outside contributor gets exposure and validation. It turns out that this is a pretty lopsided trade, where the value to Brandtone is actually much higher than the value to Quartz.

Quartz, in this deal, is getting one article, which needs a fair amount of editing; it’s a tiny proportion of Quartz’s daily output. Meanwhile, Brandtone is getting something very valuable indeed. Just look at the US flack-to-hack ratio: it’s approaching 9:1, according to the Economist, which means that for every professional journalist, there are nine people, some of them extremely well paid, trying to persuade that journalist to publish something about a certain company. That wouldn’t be the case if those articles weren’t worth serious money to the companies in question.

How valuable? How about somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million? That’s the amount of money that Fortune’s ad-sales team was asking, earlier this month, for a new product called Fortune Trusted Original Content:

Similar to licensed editorial content, TOC involves creating original, Fortune-branded editorial content (articles, video, newsletters) exclusively for marketers to distribute on their own platforms.

After news of the TOC program appeared, it was walked back — abolished, essentially. You can see why Fortune’s top editorial brass would be uncomfortable with the idea that Fortune editorial content could be commissioned by, and appear for the sole benefit of, advertisers. So now they’re going back to the old model, of just allowing advertisers to license (reprint, basically) stories which were independently commissioned and published by Fortune’s editors.

Still, the price point on the now-aborted TOC program is revealing. The cost of the content, from a “trusted freelancer”, would probably not be much more than a couple of thousand dollars — but the cost of the content to the advertiser could be as much as $1 million. The difference is entirely accounted for by the value of the Fortune brand.

In general, the more that a piece of content looks like genuine editorial content, the more valuable it becomes. As Bill Keller explained recently to Jeff Bercovici,

the advertiser comes back and says, you know, if you made this look just a little bit more like editorial content and a little bit less like sponsored content, we’d pay you an extra 25%. The combination of the metrics obsession of the web and the economic plight of news organizations make that, as I said, a really slippery slope.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, the most valuable content, to an advertiser, is content which genuinely is editorial content. Something like the Brandtone Quartz piece isn’t “sponsored” at all: no money changes hands, there are no disclaimers, and it’s produced by the editorial arm of Quartz. It’s a marketing executive’s wet dream, since it’s essentially a pure editorial endorsement of the quality and newsworthiness of what the company is saying.

This is the promise of native advertising: taking content which is produced by or on behalf of companies, and putting it in front of readers, who will consume it as they consume pure editorial content. Forbes has been doing this a lot, with its BrandVoice product. Something like this, from UPS, looks and feels very much like any other Forbes article, and in fact is a genuinely interesting story which is only peripherally related to UPS. The Forbes imprimatur is much coveted, and of course the Forbes website offers much greater reach than some corporate site ever could. So it’s easy to see why companies sign up for BrandVoice.

That said, BrandVoice is expensive. Companies need to pay Forbes; they need to pay their own marketing teams; and they need to spend time and effort putting together and signing off on content for the Forbes website. It’s quite a lot of management cycles, compared to a standard ad campaign, and it’s hard to scale. If it works well, you can’t just press a button and do more of it, like you can with banner ads.

There is now another way for companies and executives to reach millions of high-value readers, at very little cost to themselves, and without having to involve marketing executives and freelance journalists and all the other necessary inputs into native campaigns. It’s called LinkedIn, and it’s having a huge amount of success.

There’s very little distinction between editorial and advertising on LinkedIn: it’s all just posts, from various LinkedIn members, many of whom are very senior management. There are a few ads as well, but most of what you see, if you’re reading a LinkedIn story, is successful attempt by a certain executive to get his or her message in front of you. LinkedIn is about people more than it is about companies, but that really only helps — it makes everything feel more personal and less corporate, and that in turn makes the message more likely to be well received. No one cares about the editorial/advertising divide: the very concept seems silly. Indeed, if any disclosure is needed, readers would much rather know whether a certain CEO wrote a given post himself, or whether he had it written for him. (Good luck finding that out.)

LinkedIn is a real threat to native advertising: it’s a platform which has huge reach, is open to anybody, and involves much less effort, for just as much payoff, as a native campaign.

Still, a LinkedIn post is not, for the time being, going to have the same kind of branded value as a piece of pure editorial on Quartz or Fortune or Forbes. Which is why there’s one new kind of marketing campaign which I think is going to become much more popular in the future.

In print media, the editors put together an editorial product, which goes out to readers who pick and choose what they want to read; once the story has appeared, all the important decisions have already been made. But the internet doesn’t work like that. Publishers can guarantee traffic to certain stories, by placing attractive links to those stories on many different pages. And there are definitely certain stories that companies want people to read. Some will speak glowingly of the company in question, others will quote the company’s executives, others will educate the public about certain matters, others will point out weaknesses with a company’s competitors, or debunk negative claims about the company made elsewhere.

As Nick Bilton has pointed out, Facebook already has a decent business in getting people to pay it money to promote their stories; there’s no reason that smaller companies can’t get into the game as well. When Forbes or Fortune or Quartz run a story which a company wants people to read, why can’t that company pay the publisher to feature it prominently until it reaches a certain audience?

There would definitely be interesting design issues surrounding such things: how do you get across the message that a story is wholly independent editorial content, but at the same time that it’s being promoted by an outside company? Does the identity of the company need to be disclosed? And if so, where? It doesn’t seem to make sense to put the disclosure on the article page.

This kind of program is hard to do on old-fashioned sites which are based around a home page where the placement of stories is a purely editorial decision; it’s easier to do on sites like Quartz or Gawker or Mail Online, where most navigation is done by clicking on headlines in a river. The publisher can simply carve out a couple of spots in that river, and allow them to be populated with promoted content — just like sponsored content takes up space in Quartz’s river right now.

This kind of program — which could even be automated — would allow a company like Brandtones to make sure that its Quartz article was seen by many more people than are going to read it right now. It would allow Goldman Sachs to promote the articles it links to from its Twitter feed. And, most importantly, it would provide an important new revenue stream for publishers desperate for such things. I’m looking forward to the idea being rolled out, probably first at the braver shops like Gawker Media, and then at more conservative publishers. It might not be a huge success, but you never know. It’s certainly worth a try.