This article kicks off a new series of interviews that NAI is launching. We will speak to the men and women directing the Native Ad Studios of media companies around the world.
Please reach out if you want to add your Native Ad Studio to the series.
In this inaugural interview, we have spoken to Luigi Santini, Head of Native Advertising at RCS Mediagroup in Italy. Though native advertising is still not widely used In Italy the market is projected to reach 1 bn dollars in 2018, according to Adyoulike.
Facts about RCS Mediagroup
Media brands: Corriere della Sera, Dove, Living, Iodonna, Sette, Style, Gazzetta dello Sport, Sport Week, Oggi, Abitare, Amica
Name and title: Luigi Santini, Head of Native Advertising
Content studio founded: RCS Studio, January 2015 but offering native advertising since 2014.
Audience: Print: 15,3 million readers per month (33% reach) / Digital: 14,3 million unique users per month (48% reach)
A Content Studio is strategic for a publisher like us especially if you want to guard the native advertising premium market.
Why did RCS Mediagroup decide to build a Native Ad Studio?
A Content Studio is strategic for a publisher like us especially if you want to guard the native advertising premium market. Otherwise, you will be held hostage by native advertising networks.
It’s also a question of credibility with your readers. We think that when a publisher decides to open his newsfeed to host content from a brand, this can’t be only to generate traffic to a client’s website or landing page. Native advertising, in accordance with the guidelines of IAB, has to be consistent with the platform behaviour so the user feels that it belongs and doesn’t intrude. Furthermore, when you decide to host the brand’s content in your newsfeed and on your website, you’re giving it the same credibility of your editorial content and then it needs to have the same quality of the editorial content which is only possible with a Creative Studio that knows the audience and can implement the best content to engage the audience.
Setting the team
Do you recruit internally or externally?
Both. The Studio was established by joining different existing units inside the company and as well as new hires from outside the organisation.
What skills do you look for?
A Studio is similar to an Agency with the difference that it is specialised in content production, so we need creative skills but also organisational and technical skills such as analytics, marketing, design, journalistic skills.
It’s important to grow the Studio in a balanced way.
What are the ideal size and team composition?
It’s important to grow the Studio in a balanced way that is in line with how the business grows so it doesn’t become too big from the outset but is at the same time ready to react to the market trends. At the moment, we are more or less 11 internal FTE and this is not sufficient to manage peak periods.
Who does the native staff report to?
We were established as an independent business area inside the company but at the beginning of 2016, we have been integrated into the Advertising Agency of our company. We have a director that is in charge of the BTL or “through the line” services which include Events, the Content Studio and special projects.
I’m responsible for our native advertising offer for our digital and printed properties and also for special projects. In the Studio, we also offer other types of services for our clients that are related to content production directly for their websites and other media channels both print or digital.
Who is in charge of deciding which campaigns will be or won’t be done?
The last and decisive approval come from the Editor-in-Chief, the vice director or the editorial director responsible for the title it is published in.
Regarding some brands within health, alcohol, weapons or politics we ask our legal department for advice beforehand but the first evaluation is always made by the Studio where we guide the clients about the best solutions.
We believe that the separation between ”Church” and ”State” needs to be respected.
Who is in contact with the customers?
We have more than 100 sales agents with an assigned customer portfolio (media agencies and clients). They sell classic advertising and, with our support, also the creative products of the Studio. When the deal is closed, we take over the relation to the client.
Is the editorial staff or freelancers that normally writes for your publication involved in native solutions and how?
We believe that the separation between ”Church” and ”State” needs to be respected and then, on our newspapers and magazines, the native contents are written by freelance journalists, guided and supervised by our Editor in Chief.
Dealing with the ethics
Do you have written editorial guidelines for your content studio?
Yes, we have precise guidelines about headlines, images, how to cite sources, if we mention research or other facts, we need to check the sources etc. We follow the editorial guidelines of our company.
We had to convince the editorial staff step by step.
How have you dealt with possible internal resistance?
We had to convince the editorial staff step by step by proving the quality of our work. Now they are more positive than in the beginning because they see we create good content and results.
How do you label native advertising?
We mainly use “Sponsored Content”, both on the front page if it’s digital and on the article page.
Selling and pricing native advertising
Have you hired native sales specialists or do you use existing sales force and have you trained it?
We have some strategists that help our sales agents also regarding native advertising and content marketing but above all, we use the existing sales force and every Monday I organise sessions where they get updated about new products or approaches.
Sales specialists are more prepared and focused but they have a weaker relationship with our clients than the sales force who speak to them about all our products. The downside is that the general sales force are not so focused on native advertising products because they have to sell all portfolio products.
The best way to help a large sales force like ours sell native advertising is to have a listing of prices.
How do you sell native advertising?
The editorial staff only talks with clients during the development of the campaigns and the content. They are rarely involved in pre-sales meeting.
Do you have a separate native budget and who is responsible?
Yes, I have a budget to reach and I’m responsible for it.
How do you price native advertising?
The products are sold as a bundle of content and native advertising. We guarantee a number of impressions and sometimes a number of visits. At the moment we offer a bundle made of production and distribution on our network and sometimes, on external networks such as Outbrain. The best way to help a large sales force like ours sell native advertising is to have a listing of prices, so they can make offers to clients independent of the Studio.
What are the factors you consider when pricing?
Mainly two factors:
1. The complexity of the campaign and the related costs of producing the content.
2. Which audience the client wants to reach – if it’s our premium audience with a highly credible newspaper it is more costly.
How do you measure/report native advertising?
For standard products like online articles we use metrics like page views, unique users, visits and the average time spent per user/visit and social sharing.
With premium digital products like Longform articles, we offer a complete report where we also measure all the interactions with widgets and heat maps and above all we provide a qualitative analysis where we measure how the brand is perceived before and after the native campaign. To do that, we submit a survey to all our readers when they exit the website and ask them about:
– some demographics data (age, sex, where they live,…)
– some questions about the content (readability, user experience,..)
– some questions about the client’s market a direct question where we ask if, after reading the article, their opinion about the brand is changed and how it has changed.
For printed products, we run a survey which includes both readers who have been exposed and who have not been exposed to the campaign.
Media agencies don’t understand native advertising very well because they are accustomed to “vanity” metrics.
The publisher role versus the agency role
What is the role of your content studio compared to advertising agencies and the media buying agencies – replacement or an add-on?
Media agencies don’t understand native advertising very well because they are accustomed to “vanity” metrics like clicks which are generally not right for native advertising because it’s about engagement and time spent. Fortunately, they mostly leave the direct relationship with the clients to us when it comes to content. But we do develop good projects with them – especially PR agencies who are more used to working with content – and we still see them as a partner.
Do you produce native content for other media platforms?
No, we don’t produce content for competing media brands.
How do the brands view your role?
The majority of brands are not prepared for native advertising. When we start a project, we have to explain how native works, what the values are and how to exploit the product to their benefit. This is not an easy job and not every brand understands it and is ready to move their focus from the product to the story, but if they follow us the results leave them pleasantly surprised.
RELATED: How to Convince Advertisers To Tell Real Stories
Which native solutions do you offer and why?
We offer these products:
Articles: contents hosted on our sites with a template similar to editorial articles that are text with images and video launched from ‘native box’ on the home pages or vertical channels.
Video Channels: a custom video channel dedicated to brands’ video content, hosted in our web tv channels. It is launched from native positions inside our web channel tv.
Longform: custom content hosted on our sites and created from scratch in terms of content, graphics, user experience and interactions. In this format, we avoid as much as possible to talk about the brand and products directly. It’s launched from native positions on the homepages and vertical channels.
Print-native: a double page in our newspaper where we adapt contents from long-form or sometimes from scratch. Also, in this case, we favour the storytelling instead of product focus. The content is mentioned on the first page of the newspaper on a dedicated box.
Automotive: we produce a special product dedicated to an automotive brand where we treat the product with a journalistic approach. This special is hosted by our automotive section and launched from native spaces from all our channels related to this topic.
We have to produce native advertising content that is just as good as the editorial content.
Have you turned down clients who wanted services you could/would not provide?
Yes, sometimes. In that case, we try to suggest others and better solutions. This happens above all with clients who are looking for SEO optimisation.They hope to get a better ranking on search engines linking their site in native articles and they ask us to remove the ”no follow” tags on our pages.
Which native solutions have been most successful for you?
Long-form is a good stream of revenue or for us and we get good feedback from both customers and readers.
Which learnings or takeaways from your work with a content studio would you pass on to other media companies?
I think that for a publisher like us is important to aim for quality. This means we have to produce native advertising content that is just as good as the editorial content in an environment that matches the environment in which it is published and hosted. This way you can start a virtuous circle where brands, publisher and readers are happy.