How News UK has Taken Their Branded Content Practice to the Next Level

News UK began creating branded content a few years ago, but "things have really ramped up in the last 18 months" as Head of Branded Content, Joanna Carrigan puts it.
news uk branded content

This article is part of a series of interviews that NAI has conducted with the directors of publisher’s Native Ad Studios around the world.

Please reach out if you want to add your Native Ad Studio to the series. 


Joanna Carrigan

At News UK, the British publisher of The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times they began creating branded content a few years ago. But, as Head of Branded Content, Joanna Carrigan puts it, “things have really ramped up in the last 18 months”.

Their digital branded content has grown exponentially, and News are seeing great success across their cross-media partnerships too.

“As a news brand, we are expert storytellers with some incredible journalistic talent in the building, so it’s a natural fit for us to expand in this space. We have taken it to the next level in this last year and it’s allowed us to broaden our client base and also to launch some really exciting new projects,” says Joanna Carrigan.

In this interview, Joanna Carrigan takes us through the work of branded content and native advertising at News UK and reveals both challenges and important learnings.

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Being creative with native advertising

Everyone from our project management team to our editors, to our delivery teams, are involved in ideating and brainstorming.

What does the creative process look like at News UK?

The creative process at News is very much based on drawing on great minds from around the business.

I firmly believe that anyone can have a good idea (and a rubbish one for that matter, of which I’ve had many). So everyone from our project management team to our editors, to our delivery teams, are involved in ideating and brainstorming.

Our branded content strategists and sales teams are then instrumental in pulling together pitch strategies. And we have a team of expert video creative and commercial editorial who build the content once the deal has been signed.

RELATED: T Brand Studio’s Creative Process and Most Essential Learnings

In terms of creation of that content, the teams are separate, in order to preserve the lines of commerciality and editorial.

Do you collaborate with the editorial team on branded content?

We work closely with our editorial teams across our titles when it comes to ideating branded content.

In terms of creation of that content, the teams are separate, in order to preserve the lines of commerciality and editorial.

Our commercial creative team are mostly former journalists with many moving over from our editorial properties. They are able to create commercial content that is absolutely on point with our editorial tone yet is able to compliantly achieve the client’s key objectives.

On The Sun we have an excellent commercial editor and I believe this role is really important in collaborating with any newsroom.

Considering the platform when ideating is essential. It’s no use making great content if no one ever sees it.

What are the greatest pitfalls when creating a native ad campaign?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of getting carried away with the creative idea, without considering insight and also where this content will actually live.

RELATED: Storytelling Based on Data Will Raise the Bar for Native Advertising

Considering the platform when ideating is essential. It’s no use making great content if no one ever sees it. We root our ideas in insight and a consideration for where our audience will consume this content.

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Working with the brands

We hold creative workshops with our clients and also regular content learning sessions throughout the duration of campaigns.

How much and in what ways are the brands involved in the creative process?

Our branded content strategists and solutions sales teams work closely with clients and agencies on pitch responses and it’s very much a two-way process.

We hold creative workshops with our clients and also regular content learning sessions throughout the duration of campaigns, which inform future bursts of content.

Our content is very much informed by results and insight and we bring brands into that journey with us.

If the content is destined for social, show through trend analysis and social listening that these topics are resonating and likely to achieve the desired engagement.

How do you convince brands to invest time, creativity and budgets in native advertising?

We’ve been able to gather a host of successful case studies over the last 18 months which is the most powerful tool when it comes to unlocking branded content budgets.

By being able to demonstrate success for a wide range of clients and hitting a broad spectrum of performance KPIs we are able to demonstrate our success.

RELATED: “A Little Too Often, the Involvement of the Brands Is Taken Too Far”

It’s also hugely important, especially if you’re at the start of becoming a branded content outfit, have a really robust content strategy within the pitch, so being able to show your clients in an undeniable way why you know this piece of content will work with your audience and theirs.

For example, if the content is destined for social, show through trend analysis and social listening that these topics are resonating and likely to achieve the desired engagement.

How are your audiences consuming your content off-platform and why have you chosen that specific route. Have an unbreakable thread from the top to the bottom of a campaign and you can’t go wrong.

The importance of video and mobile

Video is a great storytelling mechanic and now forms the basis of most of our branded content executions.

You recently integrated video into your branded content offering – why is video so important? 

Video is hugely important to us at News and we’re very lucky to be able to create all of this in-house. For us, it’s an essential part of our storytelling capabilities, and we’re seeing excellent outcomes for our clients as a result.

As a digital strategy team, we’ve recently launched several video first properties that have allowed us to build audiences. Specifically, Style Play which is an audience extension of The Sunday Times Style that lives outwith the paywall.

Video is a great storytelling mechanic and now forms the basis of most of our branded content executions.

When it comes to branded content, we ensure we always think about device when it comes to creative and formats.

How do you think mobile into your branded content strategies?

Our digital audiences are now consuming most of our news content on mobile – for The Sun it’s 92% – so mobile is a very natural part of our mix.

We recently launched a suite of mobile formats through our V-studio offering, which also helps our clients create or edit content in vertical.

RELATED: As the Shift to Mobile Continues, Look to Video to Drive Growth

When it comes to branded content, we ensure we always think about device when it comes to creative and formats.

The most important dos of creating video for mobile is, film it for the device (or edit if it’s an existing asset), get straight to the point, and obviously always use subtitles. Audience attention span on mobile is low so you need to capture attention quickly in feed or you’re swiped.

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We recently brought on board a dedicated content delivery and optimisation team who have been instrumental in our branded content discoverability.

Distribution and optimisation

How do you make sure that people actually see your content?

We recently brought on board a dedicated content delivery and optimisation team who have been instrumental in our branded content discoverability. This is a hugely important function in any branded content eco-system.

We optimise our content every day, optimising headline and image combinations, and blending video distribution strategies according to performance and platform.

We use social to distribute a small proportion of our branded content but we’re focused on developing on-platform capabilities and strategies first and foremost.

In terms of paid, where appropriate we’ll use paid social to boost our handshaked posts on social.

What’s your strategy for using programmatic and paid distribution?

Our written content is predominantly delivered on platform using native traffic drivers. We’re also driving traffic through our SEO capabilities.

RELATED: The Golden Rules of Paid Content Distribution on Facebook

In terms of paid, where appropriate we’ll use paid social to boost our handshaked posts on social. Since the algorithm change, we have seen more of a need for this and the cost is increasing.

Despite this, we’ve driven down our off-platform paid distribution significantly due to on-platform advances made by the content delivery team which is great news.

Our digital sales team are now all fully versed in native and branded content.

The selling side

Do you have a separate sales team for native advertising?

We have a solutions sales team and also dedicated digital branded content strategists. They are tasked with working very closely with the sales teams, to support them in creating branded content campaigns that are deeply rooted in strategy and insight.

This works well and our digital sales team are now all fully versed in native and branded content. I simplified our branded content strategy, product and pricing at the start of 2017 which has shown to be very effective in terms of arming a large sales team with the right.

Our cross-platform team, ensures that there is a creative lead or a strategist at every branded content brainstorm.

How important is it for the creative team and the sales team to collaborate?

It’s hugely important and our studio process at news, led from our cross-platform team, ensures that there is a creative lead or a strategist at every branded content brainstorm.

RELATED: “The Perfect Task Force for Native Advertising Consists of the Sales Team and the Editorial Team”

This ensures that there is the correct blend of commerciality and creativity in the room and that all aspects are being covered.

A great branded content campaign needs to be a blend of the two. If the balance is off it’s bad for all parties and so keeping that collaboration is essential.

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There are many factors but as a general rule, we set pricing according to our engagement metrics and the quality of our audiences.

Which parameters do you include when setting the price for a native advertising campaign?

There are many factors but as a general rule, we set pricing according to our engagement metrics and the quality of our audiences.

The time spend with our content far exceeds our competitive set and we’re seeing excellent results on platform and with trusted partners. This forms the basis of our pricing strategy.

How do you measure the success of your native advertising campaigns?

This varies with every campaign and can be anything from simply reach, to brand uplift, to performance metrics such as sign-ups and acquisitions. We tailor this according to each brief we answer.

Sometimes gaining trust from a brand to put faith in metrics that they may not be hugely familiar with can be challenging.

The challenges

Which challenges do you have when working with brands?

Sometimes gaining trust from a brand to put faith in metrics that they may not be hugely familiar with can be challenging.

Convincing a brand who has, in the past, been hugely performance driven or concerned with excessive scale to invest in filling the top of the funnel can be tough at times.

We get around this by proving our engagement and with robust brand uplift studies that prove the value of our content and show why investing in this kind of advertising is key to any marketing mix.

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Cheap traffic and views are a false economy and I think it’s doing more harm than good to the branded content industry overall.

What are your biggest challenges regarding native advertising in general?

Having clients’ heads turned by the promise of cheap creative and even cheaper distribution.

I firmly believe that in this space you get what you pay for. Anyone can make a video or write an article (and many are), but the power of working with a premium publisher is that we lend our name and our expertise to creating content in conjunction with brands that often yields a far deeper engagement and connection with our audiences and our clients.

RELATED: Why Brands Doing Native Advertising Should Partner Up with Publishers

Cheap traffic and views are a false economy and I think it’s doing more harm than good to the branded content industry overall.

We have got an expert in the building for every niche imaginable which makes for really compelling content strategies and executions.

How do you overcome these challenges?

We work with clients and agencies to prove the power of our platforms. We also utilise our internal talent to help us ideate and create.

We have got an expert in the building for every niche imaginable which makes for really compelling content strategies and executions.

Don’t over complicate things, and focus on doing a small number of things brilliantly rather than taking on everything at once.

What important learnings would you pass on to other publishers who want to improve or set up a native ad studio?

Don’t over complicate things, and focus on doing a small number of things brilliantly rather than taking on everything at once.

Once you’ve built up a small portfolio of excellent campaigns that have delivered on all KPIs, the growth will come.

Get inspired by more learnings in our ebook “24 Essential Learnings from Native Ad Studios Around the World”

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