This article is part of a series of interviews that NAI has conducted with the directors of publishers’ Native Ad Studios around the world.
Please reach out if you want to add your Native Ad Studio to the series.
Today we speak with Thomas Buytaert, Head of Editorial Projects at Content Connections — a semi-independent commercial publisher inside the company Mediahuis due to increasing demands for commercial content.
Mediahuis is the third largest news media company in Belgium with media brands like De Standaard, Het Nieuwsblad, Gazet van Antwerpen and Het Belang van Limburg.
Setting the Native Ad Studio team
Do you recruit internally or externally?
In 2015 we had an internal debate about native advertising in the company because a part of the editorial staff was opposed to it. Because of that, we made a rule set about what was and what wasn’t possible for us to do.
One conclusion was that we couldn’t use the editorial team for producing native advertising. This can be a challenge at times because the advertiser will demand that someone from the editorial team does the native advertising. But this is neither possible for the regular editorial staff or for the regular freelancers of our newspapers.
What skills do you look for when recruiting staff for the Native Ad Studio?
We look for the same skills as when we hire for the newspaper, but we are aware that the native content team will be in contact with our commercial partners, so we also need people who can attend meetings and be part of discussions with our clients, where they have to make a good impression and help pitch the campaigns.
What are the ideal size and team composition?
The ideal size depends on the project. When we produce a weekly newspaper for a client it requires about 17 people. For other projects, we are 10-12 people, but sometimes just an editor, proofreader and layout are needed.
Who does the native staff report to?
The native team report to me as well as the two other managers and our project coordinators.
Do you ever turn clients down?
We are an independent team in-between the commercial side and the editorial side of the company, so we defend both the interests of both sides. We will refuse a campaign if it doesn’t suit our publications or if it doesn’t live up to our editorial standards. Every month we are presented with sales pitches about native advertising that are not good enough to qualify for us, so we try to point the clients towards traditional advertising or advertorials. Usually, we’re not in contact with the clients until after a deal is signed, but we try to be involved earlier in the process to make sure that everybody gets better results.
Dealing with the ethics
Do you have editorial standards for your content studio?
We have a 20-page native charter that everybody involved in native advertising in Meidahuis has to know about. It is the result of internal discussions with all four editors-in-chief of the newspapers. The charter was born out of a dispute over mistakes in the beginning of the native advertising wave, where the content wasn’t labelled clearly enough.
If we follow this rule set in Content Connections, our campaigns don’t have to be approved by the editors. That’s an important advantage for the sales staff because they have to be sure about how far they can go on their promises to clients.
How do you deal with internal resistance to the production of native advertising within your company?
We have a gatekeeper function, meaning that all the native advertising we produce has to be approved by a manager in the content studio before it goes to print or online to make sure that it has the right standards for our newspapers. It’s particularly important because we are part of a publisher with a strong editorial tradition.
How do you label native advertising?
Native advertising should never mislead the reader. We go by a principal of clarity, where it’s clearly marked who paid for the native advertising. But one of the major differences compared to traditional advertising is that we associate our editors with the native stories, and we make sure they are tailored to our target audience. We offer native advertising as a way for our commercial partners to publish a story that has the tone-of-voice and the visuals to match the publication in which it appears. Our experience is that the target audience is appreciative of this as long as we make sure that they don’t confuse it with regular editorial content.
Selling and pricing native advertising
Have you hired native sales specialists for selling native advertising?
We don’t have specialists who only sell native advertising, but the sales staff have been given a tour of Content Connections so they are well aware of what we do and how to sell native advertising. But it remains a challenge.
Do you have a separate native budget for native advertising?
The sales team does have a native budget, but it’s very difficult to estimate exactly how much we expect to sell. It’s not like traditional advertising.
How do you price native advertising?
We price it higher and that’s a requirement that the editorial staff had. They don’t want it to be anything less than a premium product because it is featured as an integral part of the editorial content. We mostly have triple A customers like banks and also a lot of government customers.
What are the factors you consider when pricing native advertising and reporting on campaigns?
The factors depend on how many people are involved, how complicated it is and for how long the campaign is running.
There’s a huge demand for native advertising from our commercial partners. It is still a challenge to make brands understand that their content is too valuable to just use in a single campaign and that they should build a content strategy instead.
The publisher role versus the agency role
How do you see the role of your Native Ad Studio compared to advertising agencies and the media buying agencies?
We don’t compete with the agencies because they are major customers of our newspapers, but Content Connections handle several projects directly. We help our partners find a strategy for social media platforms and for inbound marketing. Brands rely on us for knowledge about our media publications and for the art of publishing, so we do talk directly to some CMOs and CEOs, but again we are not aiming to outcompete agencies.
Does your content studio only do projects on your media platforms or external media platforms as well?
We do create content for other platforms — but usually not other media platforms. One of our USPs is that when we create content for a partner it comes with a content repository tool which can create content templates for pushing xml feeds to customers, so they are not limited to one type of CMS like WordPress. For some customers we deliver content for five different platforms such as their website, social media channels, newsletter etc.
Everything has to start with the CEO of your media company when you decide to create a content studio.
Which native solutions do you offer?
We do everything from native advertising campaign for Coca-Cola in our own newspapers to content marketing projects like the newspaper Flanders Today, which won the content marketing institute award this year for best Government Publication.
Which learnings or takeaways do you have from the process of building Content Connections?
Everything has to start with the CEO of your media company when you decide to create a content studio. We work in the area between the editorial and the commercial side, and you can never align their interest without the back-up of top-management. This is a company exercise that everybody has to take really seriously.
Besides this, you have to make sure that you convince the customers that it’s in their best interest to not mislead the readers when it comes to native advertising — that would be the fastest way to ruin the trustworthiness of your publication.