A Conversation With Branded Content Strategist Melanie Deziel

Branded content strategist Melanie Deziel is launching a boutique consultancy, Mdeziel Media, to educate marketers and publishers on native content, storytelling and more. She’ll also consult with a VC firm, providing guidance to media companies in its portfolio. Most recently, she worked at Time Inc. as director of creative strategy.

Prior to Time Inc., Deziel was the first editor of branded content at The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, where she worked on the Times’ award-winning “Orange Is The New Black” campaign for Netflix, as well as the “Grit And Grace” campaign for Cole-Haan. Notably, those campaigns won OMMA Awards for Best Native Ad  Campaign: Single Execution in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Before her stint at the Times, Deziel helped launch the HuffPost Partner Studio.

She serves on the board of The Native Advertising Institute, a group dedicated to advancing native advertising.

Her newsletter, The Overlap League, publishes every other week and offers news links from a variety of sources, examples of native campaigns that are worth emulating, events and job postings.

Native Insider asked Deziel for her take on the native ad landscape.

Native Insider: What are some of the challenges that publishers face with native advertising?

Melanie Deziel: Figuring out what the native versions are of the editorial content is challenging. If a publisher has articles, columns, infographics and interviews, can it do all of those things natively as well? Is it OK to write an article about what a company is doing? What about opinion pieces by advertising partners? Can publishers create native videos?

And what are the limitations? What native offerings are publishers going to have in-market? And how do they go with the editorial? Those are just a few of the questions publishers need to ask themselves.

At the Times, we wanted to try to have the content we were presenting have equally reliable sources and present it in the same formats as the editorial content. The Netflix campaign appeared in a multimedia format. There was a reported piece, audio clips, infographics and interactive storytelling. We wanted to replicate that in a native format.

NI: What are some of the challenges brand marketers face with native?

Deziel: The challenges for them are tactical. Who’s in charge of native advertising? The agency -- or an in-house group?  What is the marketer’s area of authority? What kind of topics can the marketer authoritatively speak about, and who can it partner with?

On “Orange Is The New Black,” Netflix partnered with Wired on a piece about the future of streaming video -- that made sense. Buzzfeed had “21 Reasons Prison Might Not Be So Bad After All.” The Times had a serious piece about the conditions for women in prison.

Marketers need to know what topics they can talk about and what assets they have at their disposal to tell the stories they want to tell.

NI: What kind of metrics are marketers looking for from native campaigns at this point?

Deziel:  If you were to run a standard ad campaign, you’d have to have metrics. When it comes to native, publishers need to know how they contributed to the goals of the advertiser. In native, it’s not always so clear.

You can measure impressions on banners. But with native, it’s more prevalent to have top-of-funnel metrics: brand lift and affinity, etc.

It’s important for advertisers and publishers to have the metrics conversation on KPIs at the outset. Both must be prepared to implement the metrics, or to conduct a brand study to analyze the number of content shares, the reach, awareness, page views and impressions.

NI: Do marketers still need a lot of help identifying the metrics they need for each type of campaign?

Deziel: Marketers are not okay with squishy metrics. They’re starting to see the metrics from previous campaigns. They see video performing better vs. text, and learning what works.

From a metrics perspective, people are getting smarter. They’re saying, "we measured for awareness, but we should have been measuring for engagement?  And what does engagement mean?"

They’re getting smarter about what pieces of content work and getting more clear about metrics upfront.

NI: From your experience, where does the budget for native advertising campaigns come from?

Deziel: It depends on the campaign objective and the type of content. If it’s awareness, it might come from a a PR budget, but most often, it’s coming from a media budget -- an existing media budget. It could come from sponsorship or events budgets, for example. If it’s branded content and tells a company’s story, it might come from a broadcast TV budget.

NI: Is native advertising less expensive than other forms of digital advertising?

Deziel: It’s more expensive! The barrier to entry in native barrier is higher. Banner ads are already created, you can buy thousands of impressions. But if you create a custom video series, there are costs at the start that are going to be more than a banner ad. Then there’s editing, set, talent and production fees, particularly with video.

Also, there’s distribution—how are you distributing the native content and how widely? Through the Forbes network or another network?

NI: Can you speak to marketers doing native in-house vs. partnering with publishers’ content studios?

Deziel: Marriott brought its branded content in-house and seems to be doing well.

The challenge is scale. There are enough talented creators to staff up content studios. But if you’re Marriott and you’re creating all the content in-house, how do you get that content in front of an audience?

It will be interesting to see how those in-house studios do. We may find that they partner with publishers’ studios to help with distribution.

Publishers’ studios are competing for business. As a brand marketer, you want to work with different publishers to reach different audiences. Brand marketers send RFPs to many different publishers. If you are Netflix and you partner with the Times, you get access to the Times’ audience.

It all depends on what the advertiser needs. If you’re looking for an always-on program throughout the year, you need a turn-key approach and faster production. But if you want to make a big splash for a movie, book or TV show launch, you may want to go with a more bespoke program and carefully selected publisher partners.

NI: Do you have any preliminary thoughts on the FTC’s guidance on native advertising?

Deziel: I don’t think the directions are very clear. The FTC’s not clearly defining what constitutes clarity!

What counts for clarity? Over the next few years, we’ll see a challenge made, I predict. My preliminary thoughts are that every publisher has its own approach on what clarity is.

There’s no value in a publisher tricking its audience. It’s in everyone’s best interest that the labeling on native advertising/branded content is clear.

The FTC has a diversity of publishers it wants to appeal to. Because of this, clarity for a video is very different than clear labeling for an infographic or an interview. What the Times might be able to implement on its site might be very different than what Buzzfeed can do.

The FTC referred to “fake news” and “fake business.” This happens with entertainment brands. For example, what if you talked to the actors in a show or movie about plotlines?

[Let's say] you’re interviewing a character in a show -- like The Wall Street Journal spoke about hedge fund managers as a campaign for the new Showtime show “Billions,"but they didn’t interview the hedge fund character from the show about his investments. That would have been fake. You don’t want people to walk away from a piece thinking that a character is real.

1 comment about "A Conversation With Branded Content Strategist Melanie Deziel".
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  1. Mani Gandham from Instinctive, February 4, 2016 at 6:21 p.m.

    The FTC guidelines are actually very clear and concise so it's strange to say they're not. Anyone can clearly see what they meant by "fake news" and "fake business" as misleading pages designed to mimic news stories or businesses vouching for products. This is clearly deceptive, if not illegal depending on execution, and I don’t think anyone would confuse this tactic with interviews of actors.

    Interview was interesting until that last question which just strikes me as a confused answer.

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