I’ve Seen Advertisers Struggle to Tell Authentic Stories

This Q&A originally appeared on the Native Advertising Institute Blog, as part of the ‘meet the speakers at Native Advertising Days 2016’ series. Join me at the conference, November 16-17 in Berlin! screen-shot-2014-10-02-at-9-53-38-pm

Reluctance or maybe even downright skepticism is apparently still what publishers risk facing when producing native advertising solutions for clients.

‘Convincing advertisers to tell real stories’ is seen as the biggest challenge regarding native advertising in a survey by Native Advertising Institute and FIPP among 140 magazine executives from across the globe.

How do you overcome that challenge – and are advertisers sometimes right not to go on the storytelling? We asked these and other questions to Melanie Deziel, award-winning branded content strategist, and author and the founder of The Overlap League, the native advertising industry newsletter. She also served as the first editor of branded content at The New York Times – AND she will be speaking at Native Advertising Days.

Do you recognize the challenge of convincing advertisers to tell real stories from your own experiences? I’ve absolutely seen advertisers struggle to tell authentic stories before. It’s certainly a real challenge, and most often for those advertisers who are new to native advertising or those who have. But it’s rare that they don’t see the value in stories; more often it’s the processes or priorities that take the lead in more direct response marketing programs such as banner ads, direct mail, coupon promotions, etc. carry over to native ad programs and get in the way of letting the story take the lead.

The need to see conversions can create a “salesy” feel.

Sometimes when the budgets for native ad programs come from a product launch, or are led by a sales-focused team, the need to see conversions can force the product to a more prominent — and perhaps less natural —place in the story creating a forced and “salesy” feeling. Other times, particularly in heavily regulated industries like finance or pharmacy legal concerns or risks about privacy are of the utmost concern to marketers; as a result, the natural flow of the story sometimes falls to the wayside in favor of ultra-clear disclosures, asterisks, and fine print.

How do you suggest that publishers go about the ‘convincing’ of advertisers? I think it’s important for publishers and publishing-side content studios to feel empowered by being honest and open with their brand partners on the impact that their requests for more branding can have on a piece. Advertisers partner with publishers because they are specifically looking for storytelling expertise, so we’d be remiss if we sidestepped our storytelling best practices without warning them first simply because we didn’t want to rock the boat.

Let them know that you can, for example, make that logo bigger or include another reference to the brand, but that readers will likely find it unnatural and you recommend keeping it as is. Most often, advertisers will appreciate your honesty and come to trust your instinct, but at least if they choose not to take your advice, they’re doing it with the correct information and an understanding of the potential consequences for performance.

Not every native ad program calls for an edgy piece with minimal branding and a story at the center.

Ultimately, though, not every native ad program calls for an edgy piece with minimal branding and a story at the center. More branded “advertorial” pieces are still a huge business — especially in technical and highly regulated fields where advertisers are more comfortable retaining control and in local publishing markets where publishers may not have resources to create bespoke content. These advertorial pieces allow advertisers who are not yet ready or able to step outside their own story to have a hand at speaking to readers directly. And while that content is not always the most engaging, compelling, or differentiated, it does help marketers start to think about the role that storytelling can play in their efforts. Hopefully it helps them increase their comfort levels so that they can begin to tell less and less branded stories (that focus more on their consumers) down the line.

Are there even products or brands who are not fit for native advertising, in your opinion?

Personally, I think any brand is capable of telling a compelling story that provides new and interesting information to their consumers. That said, I recognize it is much more difficult for some types of brand to accomplish these programs than others such as:

– Advertisers in heavily regulated industries like finance, pharmacy, and health care have strict limits to the things they can say, the information they can share, and the recommendations they can make; these limits can sometimes make “natural” storytelling difficult—or at the very least; complicated. – For brands that do work on behalf of other groups or brands—such as tourism boards, unions, non-profits, political groups and other collectives—coordinating a single content piece and getting buy-in from all stakeholders may be more difficult than for other brands. – Alcohol advertisers and others that have the be aware of age restrictions on their content viewing, may be rightfully weary about certain types of content, certain stories, or promoting their content in certain contexts.

Training of sales team is mentioned as the second biggest challenge by magazine executives regarding native advertising in the survey. Training is a costly affair – especially if you’re a small publisher. Are there in your opinion ways to go about this that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of spending on the part of the publishers? I have conducted this type of training as a content studio staffer, and more recently as a consultant as well. Coordinating such trainings can be difficult and expensive, as any large meetings and training sessions can be, but the insights gained from these sessions are so valuable for sales teams and can have a tremendous impact on that bottom line for the publisher.

For some publishers there may be an internal content advocate who can conduct such trainings, such as a head of content, a copy director, or a lead strategist. If this person is capable of explaining their process in an articulate way that resonates with a sales team; this is a great solution for sharing insights across departments and reducing the costs of hiring an outside expert.

But for many publishers no single internal expert has emerged with both the deep knowledge of content sales strategies and best practices AND the ability to clearly convey those insights to a sales team in a way that resonates with them. A specialist can often “speak the language” of sales in a way that allows them to more clearly convey the sales advantages of a content-first and quality-first mindset, helping a sales team to understand the content team’s vision and better understand the role that content can play in helping them to achieve their client’s marketing goals.

The easiest way to create an effective branded content strategy is to critically examine what is working editorially and model your native offerings and best practices around that.

Thirdly, magazine executives mention the ‘creation of effective strategies’ as a challenge in native. It’s a big question – but do you have a quick fix for this?

This is indeed a big question. The easiest way to create an effective branded content strategy, in many cases, is to critically examine what is working editorially, and model your native offerings and best practices around that. What formats perform best for your newsroom? What topics are most engaged in by your audience? What social networks tend to drive the most traffic to your site? These learnings fro your editorial team should be ingested and applied to your recommendations on the branded side as well.

And of course, there are outside experts and consultants who can help publishers do these types of analysis and work together with sales, marketing and content teams to create repeatable strategic frameworks that can be adjusted and implemented for different types of clients in the future, based on their needs.

What is the biggest challenge for native advertising in your personal opinion? I do think that telling authentic stories, as was cited in the study, is one of the biggest challenges, for most advertisers. When you’re used to programs that are more direct-response, many of the best practices of native advertising seem counter-intuitive by comparison. It can often be a big shift in mindset and it does take time. But I also think it’s a huge opportunity. If we know that this is the biggest challenge for advertisers, imagine the impact and the benefits for readers, publishers and advertisers once some of these big brands are able to shift their mindset and can begin putting resources toward telling great stories that may not yet have been told?


Meet me at Native Advertising Days on November 16th-17th .Jesper Laursen, CEO of Native Advertising Institute, will talk in depth about the findings in the survey. In attending the conference you will also be presented with inspirational cases, solid insights and actionable tools that you can take home and implement right away. Other speakers include Stephanie Losee, Head of Content at VISA, Jason Miller, Global Content Marketing Leader at Linkedin, Michael Villaseñor, Creative Director of Ad Innovation and Marketing at the New York Times, and Rebecca Lieb, Leading Industry Analyst on native Advertising.