How to Go Native: Make the Most of Sponsored Content

Originally written for Lean Back, The Economist Group's blog of intelligent insights for the entrepreneurial chief marketing officer.

In 2014, everyone talked about native advertising, but few were making the most of it. This will all change in 2015, as publishers offer solutions that are both impactful for marketers and compelling for readers.

However, winning with native is not as easy as simply purchasing an ad. The first stage is to partner with those publishers that are getting the basics right, confidently identifying their ads as sponsored content, matching them to their site’s editorial tone and creating content that resonates.

The process should include identifying the publications your target market actively consumes but also knowing which of them have created their own custom content groups. In addition to stylistic differences that reflect their parent publications, different in-house groups have different specialties. For example, SlateCustom has perfected the art of the infographic and Onion Labs specializes in video production. These groups are perfectly in sync with their publication’s tone, style and audience, and working with them makes it more likely that your efforts will be successful.

Ensure you have a story to tell: It’s no secret that great storytelling is a sure-fire path to success – make sure that your message can be crafted into a compelling and interesting story. Onion Labs may be able to make comedy gold out of most topics, but don’t set yourself up for failure by creating a brief that won’t lend itself to a good story.

Rely on your partners to know their site best: Your content lab partner will be completely in sync with their publication’s tone and audience so there is less of a need to micro-manage. Let go a bit. After all, this is why you’ve partnered with a content lab.

“Trust in a publishing partner is paramount,” says Adam Clement, a native content strategist at Mental Floss. “We’ve seen what happens when brands throw caution to the wind and achieve real virality by allowing publishers in the driver’s seat. It’s why brands like Intel are able to piggyback on a Mental Floss list show about lifehacks to reach a discerning yet receptive audience rabid for intellectual content.”

Align your native ad with your strategies: While native is a unique form of advertising, don’t ignore traditional promotional and distribution tactics. Traditional social media strategies still work and can be amplified by your content partner’s social media reach. Forbes, for example, tweeted a BrandVoice native ad for SAP from their main account with 4.43 million followers.

Make sure your native strategy supports your larger strategy: Native is not the place to indulge your dreams. This is still paid content and if your native/sponsored content doesn’t fit with your larger strategy, it won’t drive any benefits for your brand. While custom content is meant to be different, ensure that it still fits with your larger goals and brand voice.

Connect it to e-commerce: Similarly, don’t forget your overall goal, be it driving awareness, favorability or identifying new leads and new customers. Using your content lab partnership to drive traffic to Amazon, an e-commerce store or a specific section of your website can lead directly to sales lifts.