How Niche Publication Works with Multiple Sponsors and Native Ads about Science

Even in the world of chemistry, there is room for native advertising and the native ad studio C&EN BrandLab is living proof of this.
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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.


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Even in the world of chemistry, there is room for native advertising, and the native ad studio C&EN BrandLab, which launched in May 2017, is living proof of this.

We talked to Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, Executive Editor at C&EN BrandLab, and she explained how the native ad studio balances between native advertising, scientific accuracy, storytelling and multiple sponsors.

Because C&EN is a niche publication all about chemistry. The letters stand for Chemical & Engineering News and is published by the American Chemical Society. Both the writers, editors, advertisers and readers all care deeply about science.

C&EN BrandLab is probably the first native ad studio to offer native advertising within the scientific arena, which is not always an easy task since the world of science always calls for accuracy. And there is always one particular thing at stake: Credibility.

Here is what Raj Mukhopadhyay told us:

Advertisers in the scientific arena, just like advertisers elsewhere, were interested in exploring content marketing and using it to attract new customers and retain them.

The story of C&EN BrandLab

When and why did C&EN BrandLab come to life?

C&EN BrandLab, which officially launched in May 2017, is the brainchild of Stephanie Holland, the assistant director of advertising sales & C&EN marketing. She was keenly aware that advertisers in the scientific arena, just like advertisers elsewhere, were interested in exploring content marketing and using it to attract new customers and retain them.

RELATED: The Washington Post’s Brand Studio: Story First, Last and Always

She noted the successes that major media companies were having with their native advertising studios. In a bold move, she, therefore, proposed to create C&EN BrandLab so that it could offer the services of native advertising to companies in the chemical and instrumentation industries. We believe we’re the first to offer native advertising within the scientific arena.

What sets C&EN BrandLab apart from other Native Ad Studios?

Our focus is on creating compelling and engaging content that resonates with a scientifically savvy audience. What this means is that all of our content has to be scientifically accurate.

Our readers are experts in chemistry and can spot technical and scientific errors very quickly. As on the editorial side, we hold scientific accuracy as sacrosanct. But engaging, compelling narrative is just as important as scientific accuracy so we always strive for both.  

Our readers know chemistry intimately and don’t tolerate scientific ignorance. If we make mistakes, we lose credibility.

Creating good niche native advertising

What characterises good native advertising at C&EN BrandLab?

The characteristics are engaging stories about an area of fundamental chemistry, applications of chemistry to real-world problems or instrument development to tackle a challenge. But, no matter what the story is about, the facts must be correct. I cannot stress enough how important scientific accuracy is to us. Our readers know chemistry intimately and don’t tolerate scientific ignorance. If we make mistakes, we lose credibility.  

Sometimes, the science itself may be nothing new but we find a new application that this science is being used for which becomes the story we tell.

How do you find the stories that will work as native advertising for your clients?

My team and I spend a lot of time talking to clients and researching the subject areas in which our clients do business. Some chemical companies have interests in many different areas, ranging from electric batteries to skincare products.

RELATED: How BBC Storyworks Creates Native Advertising with Newsroom Values

After we find out from the clients what business they want to promote, based on our research, we find angles that we can explore in our stories. Sometimes, the science itself may be nothing new but we find a new application that this science is being used for which becomes the story we tell.

What is interesting storytelling in the world of science and chemistry?

Science writers find interesting stories to tell about science and scientists every single day! We’re no different in that regard. There are so many stories to tell about science and the work that researchers do to understand the fundamental principles on which our world operates, solve global challenges, and find ways to improve lives of people.

But I will go back to scientific accuracy: That comes first. Do not get the science wrong. 

What are the most important elements in storytelling for especially your clients?

Just as for stories told elsewhere, a strong narrative arc, compelling quotes, and detailed descriptions are important storytelling elements. Science-based stories are no different in that regard.

But I will go back to scientific accuracy: That comes first. Do not get the science wrong. 

Multi-sponsor pieces are fun to do. We pick a topic that’s of interest to our readers and find an interesting story to tell on that topic

Working with multiple sponsors

You have done native advertising pieces that have more than one sponsor – how does this work?

Multi-sponsor pieces are fun to do. We pick a topic that’s of interest to our readers and find an interesting story to tell on that topic. A great example is the chemistry of cannabis.

There are stories to be told about how scientists are ensuring the safety of medical marijuana products, satisfying constantly evolving—and sometimes conflicting—governmental regulations, and developing new methods to make sure active ingredients in cannabis products are present at the promised levels.

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These pieces can be a good way for a company to begin experimenting with native advertising.

Once we’ve figured out the story we want to tell, we tell companies with business interests in that topic about our story and if they’d like to participate in sponsoring the piece. They get to offer us a source, either from within the company or from one of their customers, for an interview. With the sources provided by our clients and our independent sourcing, we weave together the story. The companies get to fact check the quotes from their sources but they are not allowed to touch any other parts of the story.

RELATED: Time Inc’s Content Studio: “It Is of Utmost Importance to Collaborate”

These multi-sponsor pieces help to show our readers in one shot which companies have interests in the topic. The views from a variety of company experts also help to showcase how different companies and organizations are working in various ways to tackle a grand challenge in a particular niche of chemistry. These pieces can be a good way for a company to begin experimenting with native advertising.

The power of native advertising to influence buyers speaks for itself. We have case studies with some of our clients that we can show prospective clients.

Working with the brands

How do you convince the brands to invest time, creativity and budgets in native advertising at C&EN BrandLab?

The power of native advertising to influence buyers speaks for itself. We have case studies with some of our clients that we can show prospective clients. The case studies demonstrate how the C&EN BrandLab pieces have lifted our clients’ brands in the eyes of C&EN readers, made them better informed about what the brands are all about, and, best of all, more likely to consider them as potential vendors.

How much and in what ways are the brands involved in the creation of the content?

Because the technical and scientific details are so critical in our stories, we always request our clients to put us in touch with their subject matter experts. Sometimes it’s not possible to get access to a company’s experts in a timely fashion at which point we go out and identify experts on our own. But, most of the time, we get the access to the clients’ experts. It helps us ensure that we get the details correct in the niche of chemistry that we’re covering in our story.  

Of course, we always ask our clients and readers how satisfied they are with our content!

How do you measure the effectiveness of your content?

We capture the same analytics as the editorial side of the magazine captures for its stories. We look at page views, impressions, time spent on stories and social-media shares. And, of course, we always ask our clients and readers how satisfied they are with our content!

RELATED: How Native Ad Studios Around the World Measure the Success of Native Advertising

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Challenges and learnings

Is the editorial staff involved in the development of your native advertising?

Not at all. We have a bright line that separates editorial and branded content and we don’t ever cross that line.

Have you dealt with any internal scepticism? And how?

None. The leaders at C&EN as well as those of the ACS overall have been very supportive of our efforts.

What challenges come with being a BrandLab at a niche publication?

I love and embrace the fact that we’re a niche publication! It means we have to have the scientific knowledge and expertise to properly serve our clients and readers. The need for expertise doesn’t faze me. I have a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University (most of the writers and editors on the C&EN masthead have advanced degrees in chemistry).

RELATED: 10 Experts on the Secret to Good Native Advertising

Besides my scientific training, I have over a decade’s experience in science journalism. The senior editor of C&EN BrandLab, Jeffrey Lee, is trained in journalism. Given our training, we know exactly what resonates with our readers and advertisers in terms of story and subject matter. We also make sure that the freelance writers we hire have the right amount of scientific expertise and journalism experience to hit that sweet spot of telling compelling, authentic stories about chemistry.

A good story satisfies both the client and the readers.

You only just started up the BrandLab in May – what have been your most important learnings so far?

I was a journalist for much of my career. Moving into branded content is new for me. My most important learning is something about which I had a gut feeling but now know for sure: A good story is a good story, branded or not. Yes, we must heed the needs of our clients in creating branded content pieces, but we must also think of our readers and how they experience the piece. A good story satisfies both the client and the readers.

Have a team that is diverse in its expertise.

What important learnings would you pass on to other niche companies who are considering setting up a branded content studio?

Have a team that is diverse in its expertise. My colleagues, Stephanie Holland, Kirsten Dobson, Jeffrey Lee and Kay Youn, all bring in different strengths that complement well with each other. Stephanie is the sales and advertising expert on the team. Kirsten is our savvy account manager who helps us interface with our clients efficiently and effectively. Jeff is the expert in content marketing, having spent much of his career doing it at another organization. Kay holds up the design end of C&EN BrandLab, both in print and digital, and is responsible for the studio’s aesthetic. I bring the scientific knowledge and the experience in science journalism. Together, we cover all the critical aspects of creating branded content.  

RELATED: The 9 Most Important Learnings from Native Ad Studios Around the World

The other thing is to make sure that the team has access to resources. We are so lucky to have access to C&EN’s resources, such as the fabulous and talented production and creative teams who work closely together with us to pull off C&EN BrandLab pieces.

Finally, our bosses have been wonderful about giving us the room to experiment. At a time when traditional advertising has taken a beating, launching C&EN BrandLab was audacious. But C&EN BrandLab has attracted some high-profile clients, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, IKA and The Chemours Company. We’ve been able to take the lead in showing how branded content can be powerful in generating revenue for the magazine and, at the same time, helping science and technology companies better connect with their customers.  

Have you heard about the Native Advertising DAYS? It’s the best conference on native advertising in the World. Read more about it right here.

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