Stephanie Losee is no stranger to the quickly evolving world of branded content. She’s a hybrid, too—she was a business journalist before she became a branded content strategist. As managing editor, she led Dell’s successful foray into branded content, did a stint launching Politico’s in-house content studio, and is now Visa’s head of content.
Losee is active on the speaking circuit, and serves as an advisory board member of the Native Advertising Institute, a Copenhagen-based association dedicated to advancing best practices for native advertising and branded content. She also serves as a jury member for this Native Advertising Awards this year.
Having worked on both sides of the content fence—brand and publisher—and as a journalist who’s passionate about finding sustainable business models for media, she has a unique point of view. I spoke recently with Losee about what she’s learned.
Tobi Elkin: You’ve sat on both sides of the table now—the publisher side and the brand side—and you were in on the ground floor of native, when Dell was one of the first publishers on Forbes AdVoice (now called BrandVoice), and the inaugural brand for the launch of The New York Times’ Paid Posts. What role do you think native advertising will play in contributing to publishers’ bottom line?
Stephanie Losee: I used to think bespoke native would be the savior of traditional publishers that were trying to find new pay models in the post disintermediation-of-media era. But I now recognize that it’s just a piece of the puzzle. It’s far too labor-intensive on both the publisher side and the brand side; it simply doesn’t scale in the way a genuine solution to the problem needs to scale, and in the way traditional advertising used to support investigative journalism.
Elkin: There aren’t many publishers and other industry stakeholders who talk specifically about which pay models will save journalism, but I know you raise that point quite a bit in your talks. Why do you think that is?
Losee: It doesn’t make sense for brands or publishers to discuss it too much in those venues. The Fourth Estate has suffered a near-fatal series of blows in the last decade. I think we all have a stake in strengthening it, but brands simply don’t need traditional publishers in the way they used to. Publishers don’t own audiences as they did before the Internet scattered them to the winds.
Now brands can target their customers individually. And publishers can’t pitch native as a partial solution to the hole that’s been blown through their business model, because it’s a weak position to take when you’re selling. But as a former journalist and then former brand managing editor who was creating brand content for a publisher, it was hard for me not to point out that there was a higher purpose in the mix. I would sometimes get emotional about it.
Elkin: What have you concluded about the solution for publishers to thrive now?
Losee: I’d hate to think we need to return to the patronage model, but when I observe The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos, I wonder if that’s where we’re headed. Then again, what I’ve come to believe is that publishers need to adopt a digital startup mentality that invests rather than cuts its way to growth, and Bezos certainly brings that mindset.
I think publishers that can recognize the current visual, mobile, and experiential nature of information consumption and deliver audiences to advertisers’ offerings through news and entertainment will succeed. And those that can’t shift to a nimble Silicon Valley mindset—sorry to frame it that way, but as a former New Yorker and current San Franciscan, that’s how I see it—will lose their businesses to digital-first publishers like Vox and Vice, and fast-transforming traditional publishers like The New York Times. If that hasn’t already happened.
Elkin: Apart from publishers’ business and revenue models and how native plays into them, what do you think are the most important issues or questions we’re not raising about native advertising?
Losee: Research tells us that consumers still don’t understand what publishers and brands are doing when they publish native content. Even when the content is clearly labeled, the non-standardized nomenclature confuses people. I hate to think that we need to impose standardized terms on publishers, because one of the favorites of regulators is “sponsored advertising content,” which I abhor, but I think we have to consider the possibility that it may be necessary in order to restore trust.
Elkin: Since you’ve been on both sides, what is your view about what brands bring to the table vs. publishers (and agencies) in terms of native content creation? What strengths does each bring, and what inherent weaknesses does each have?
Losee: Brands understand their business and messaging goals best, and know which topics and approaches are most in line with the company’s values and previous projects. Publishers know what resonates most with their audiences and own the measurement.
The creative spark often comes from the publisher’s in-house content studio or the external agency that’s working with the publisher.
When the three entities bring their greatest strengths together in one content project, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s better than the best advertising, in my view, because on sites with clear labeling that drives audiences to the content through an ad unit, every reader who engages with the content made the choice to click and then made the choice to stay. The experience was not imposed on them; they were not interrupted.
Elkin: What are the distribution challenges of brand marketers and publishers with respect to native?
Losee: Effective distribution beyond simple posting on the publisher’s site requires a lot of cycles. For example, which component of the project will play best on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and so on? Which headline is performing best and on which channel, at which time of day? Again, much of the process is labor-intensive—the very opposite of the programmatic direction publishers and media buyers prefer to go in.
Elkin: Metrics and measurement continue to be a challenge for native advertising. What metrics do we have, and what metrics do you, as a brand marketer, want, but don’t have?
Losee: A big publisher that I admire offers brands Nielsen ratings at the end of each campaign, but I struggle with the notion that a native advertising campaign can be credited with a rise in sentiment scores over the course of the engagement. How can you be sure?
I’d love to conduct reader surveys for every project so I can be sure what the content prompted audiences to think or do that they weren’t thinking or doing before the campaign began, but it’s not practical. It’s what I want, though, and when I’ve done reader surveys for native campaigns, I’ve been really pleased with what I’ve learned.
Video completion rates and time spent on page tell me that the content captured a reader’s attention, but at this point I’m still in the dark about how that interaction moved a particular customer’s needle. I know that lead generation and conversion rates are persuasive to a lot of marketers, and they should be, but those kinds of proof points are too much to ask of editorial-style, sponsored content pieces. Content marketing is substantially reputational in its impact, and individual pieces are like rain in a barrel, collecting drop by drop.
Elkin: What do you think needs to happen for the industry to be able to offer brands the metrics they’re looking for?
Losee: This is in the category of be careful what you wish for, because I think we’re on the verge of having it—and we might wish we could turn back time once we do. I think companies like Google that capture data about our behaviors will be able to tell a brand that after a person engaged with native content, he or she then conducted searches or took actions that demonstrated enhanced interest or a shift in belief—evidence far beyond clicks from a piece of content to the brand’s Web site or registrations for an app. I have no doubt the data exists now, but the knowledge is discomfiting.
Elkin: Finally, whose branded content or native advertising do you admire, and why?
Losee: I recently served as a judge for the 2016 Native Creatives Awards, and it was a privilege. It wasn’t fair at all to choose a winner from each group of finalists—it was akin to choosing your favorite kind of bacon. They all achieved a level of excellence that humbled me. I can’t disclose the finalists, so you’ll have to wait until July 19 to find out who I’m talking about. Look at every single one—as a group, they’re a de facto master class on what to do and how to do it.
Editor’s note: The piece was slightly edited from the original for NAI. The original appeared on MediaPost.
Photo credits: Liza, Flickr