APN makes hay while the native advertising sun shines with launch of commercial content hub

Back when newspapers (and, to a lesser degree, magazines) were happily floating down their rivers of gold, the church and state of editorial and sales were kept very separate. But desperate times call for what some may see as desperate measures and as publishers search for new revenue streams, many of them are increasingly offering their skills to help tell the stories of businesses. Now APN has joined that club with the launch of Brand Insight

As BIA/Kelsey​ recently predicted—right down to the decimal point—”native ad spend will make up 42.2 percent of digital by 2017”. So, given the apparent riches on offer, it’s no surprise there’s plenty of action in this space at the moment. And as APN explains on the site:

The New Zealand Herald’s Brand Insight gives our vast audience a chance to connect directly to the leadership thinking of many leading companies and organisations.

It does so by offering a new outlet on the Herald’s digital platform. The high quality content, in line with journalistic standards, is often produced by the company or brand and must be of interest to readers. It is clearly signposted.

This innovative approach integrates such content into an editorial environment, allowing you, the reader, an extra perspective and fresh sources of information while permitting companies to take advantage of the Herald’s reach.

So far, Vodafone, BNZ and the University of Auckland have signed up as partners and Donna Gurney, APN’s agency sales director, says it’s very happy with how well it’s performed since it launched in late August. APN had run some sponsored content for the University of Auckland before the Brand Insight section was launched, but as those stories only appeared in the standard content feed, she says they disappeared quite quickly. Since this kind of content has been given its own home, however, she says readership of those stories has increased by around five times and a recent story by Sarah Stuart on the MBA course, Married but Available, ended up being one of the most read stories of the day across the whole nzherald.co.nz site (the brands involved can also use the content on their own websites and social media platforms, but not on competing news sites). 

As John Oliver pointed out recently in typically entertaining fashion, there is some cynicism about the rise of native advertising as some believe it’s about tricking readers by making advertising look like editorial (“Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except it’s more like raisins into a cookie because no-one fucking wants them there,” he said). Established publishers like the New York Times are usually very clear about what’s been paid for, and Buzzfeed recently made some changes to its labelling of brand-sponsored content. And Gurney says “transparency is at the heart of it” for APN as well, which is why it has taken all possible steps to explain what the site is and who’s paying for the content. 

She says some of the writers in the Brand Insight team, which is led by APN’s director of editorial innovation Paul Lewis and includes four writers and various freelancers, have been Herald journalists in the past, but they are completely separate from the newsroom. In saying that, Lewis is still writing columns in the sport section and Sarah Stuart still does the 12 questions section, so it might be a little fuzzy for some, but, on the other side of that coin, at least sponsored content is usually labelled, unlike much of the PR-fuelled content that is often passed off as editorial without any mention of its provenance (Digiday’s Confessions series recently featured a journalist who had heeded the call of native content). 

As for how much the brands are paying for the privilege, Gurney says it varies depending on how much input the team has. In some cases, the Herald writers do the story or interview someone from the company. In others, they simply edit copy provided by the brands to keep it “in line with journalistic standards” and Herald style. Either way, she says there is an understanding that brands can’t use the platform to sell. It’s about thought leadership and basking in the reflected glow of the content, rather than directly promoting the latest handset, home loan rate, or course. 

She says it spoke to a number of clients before Brand Insight was launched and while there was plenty of interest, many of them wanted to wait and see if it worked before jumping in. Now that it’s been proven to be successful, she’s hopeful many of them will now come on board (its model is to offer category exclusivity). 

Around the world, publishers like Buzzfeed and Upworthy claim engagement for their native advertising is often higher than editorial (Upworthy has said content from brands typically gets three times the shares and 3.5 times the pageviews and branded posts get 2.9 times the attention time as regular editorial content.). And recent sponsored stories from The New York Times for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Wired for Netflix on the changing world of TV, shows that this type of paid-for content can occasionally be a win-win-win: good for the reader, good for the publisher and good for the brand. 

While many publishers are offering their services to brands, some brands are taking it one step further and hiring—or at least commissioning—journalists themselves, and not just in corporate affairs or PR. The banks seem particularly keen on content at the moment, and ANZ’s Blue Notes is a good example of a brand investing heavily to create its own media property and, as publisher Amanda Gomes told AdNews, respond to the exodus of business journalists who have been forced out of the traditional publishing industry due to diminishing advertising revenue.

Dan Lyons, a former technology editor at Newsweek, writer at Forbes and now “marketing fellow” at HubSpot, wrote a good piece last year in The Huffington Post about that evolution and he believes it’s happening because the world of marketing is not just about transactions anymore, it’s about trying to build relationships. 

IBM hired a reporter from BusinessWeek. Qualcomm hired one from USA Today. GE and LinkedIn hired journalists from Forbes. In the past few months Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, two big venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, hired journalists from the Wall Street Journal and Wired, respectively. 

… You know the old saying, Content is king? Apparently it’s true. These days a lot of companies are getting into the media business, no matter what their core businesses might be — making jet engines, or investing in startups. Maersk, the Danish shipping company, has built a news operation, as has Nissan. And some are creating legitimate journalism, stuff as good as what you’d read in Time or watch on CNN.

Some people call this corporate journalism, or corporate media. I think it’s a new form of marketing, and I believe that over the next 10 years, more and more of what we call “marketing” is going to look a lot like what we used to call “media.”

Why? Because business itself is changing. A lot of companies aren’t focused on one-off transactions and instead are trying to build relationships. They don’t have customers; they have subscribers.

… You know who’s good at building an audience of subscribers and keeping them informed and engaged? All those people from the editorial side of the media business — reporters, journalists, editors, producers, photographers, art directors, and so on.

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