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Branded content and native advertising have been around for many years, but new product innovations have made them more valuable as strategic tools for PR professionals and their clients.
No longer just the purview of advertising and marketing firms, native content should be a key element of an overall communications strategy, on par with earned media, advertising or social media, in terms of attention and spend.
Every PR professional is aware of the traditional branded content model, where agencies or companies buy content placements on publications to promote brands. But new models, such as emerging native content marketplaces that sell placements on multiple sites, and membership organizations that offer content placement as a benefit, can serve to amplify the individual voices of executives and clients.
If it’s not treated as advertising, but as true thought leadership with journalistic integrity, then native content can help build exposure, drive engagement, and establish credibility and gravitas.
Amplifying key voices
It’s now common for brands to hop on the native content/paid placement bandwagon to amplify their corporate voices and points of view. But a brand’s stakeholders — its customers, followers, partners and even employees — increasingly want to hear from the company’s leaders rather than being spoon-fed corporate mission statements.
Think of some of our most beloved brands, and you will find that many are inexorably linked to leaders with a distinct point of view: Virgin’s Richard Branson with adventure and fun, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh with customer and employee happiness, Goldieblox’s Debbie Sterling with STEM education for girls, and Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard with environmental advocacy.
These leaders aren’t recognizable and respected just because of media exposure, but because of true engagement with their stakeholders. In a survey of 1,000 consumers conducted by social media marketing firm Sprout Social, 59 percent of respondents said that it’s “important for CEOs to engage with consumers and followers on social and political issues on social media.”
In an online world that is increasingly noisy, points of view and opinions that have nothing to do with self-promotion are becoming more and more important. It’s not enough to recognize the brand; we want to know the people behind it and what they stand for.
This is where new ways of using native content can provide opportunities to amplify voices, not to “fake” earned media, but to give leaders a platform on which to build a distinct personal brand by speaking from the heart with honesty and integrity.
At the same time, native content feels “safer” because the author has control over the narrative of who they are and what they believe in. And that control over the message leads to the kind of consistency that will result in a chief executive or client being known for a particular point of view or a certain kind of expertise. Not only does this build credibility; it ultimately also complements earned media and sets the foundation for more of it by building online search visibility.
Creating business value
PR professionals have a wide range of native content options. They can purchase native content programs through traditional advertising sales, membership communities or professional organizations that offer the opportunity for selected members to contribute content via native channels.
They can also negotiate native content placements in print or digital as an additional perk for clients who speak at conferences connected with media brands. Whatever the vehicle, using this tool can create a whole new level of value for clients by driving conversation, creating impact, and building community around the client.
Content created through native programs can be deployed in a variety of ways, depending on the business goals of the client or executive. The more frequently clients post, the more likely they are to show up on the first page of an organic Google search on their area of expertise. This is because most native content posts enjoy the same page ranking and search engine visibility as journalistic posts on media sites, which leads to more exposure to journalists, who often begin looking for sources with a Google search.
Clients can also create entire campaigns based around their content, using it in marketing newsletters to current customers and prospects, building paid social media campaigns on relevant platforms, providing links for key personnel to use in outbound sales or strategic communications, and posting excerpts in blogs and other online channels.
Contributing content to a native program is not about broadcasting a grandiose vision statement that is broadly consumable. That’s what press releases are for. Rather, it should be the PR professional’s job to identify the distinct audiences where the client’s voice is most likely to resonate. Content on a prestigious media brand that already has millions of readers can provide broad reach and accreditation. But posting on a smaller platform that lives in a highly targeted niche or specific geographic location may be every bit as valuable too.
Native content programs offer targeted capability and the flexibility to try a variety of options, allowing chief executives and clients to find their audiences, identify the types of conversations and topics that those audiences care about, participate in those conversations and, when appropriate, take the lead in guiding those discussions. In the process, they’ll find the communities of people to whom they can offer the most value in terms of knowledge and expertise, and who will ultimately be of the most value to them.
They can then do a detailed analysis of ROI. What tactics and types of content drive conversions, result in business meetings, yield speaking opportunities, email signups to newsletters, or introductions to potential partners?
Content that achieves the desired results can be amplified in other channels — social media, marketing materials, website blogs — for even more impact. It isn’t about selling; it’s about espousing a more human voice to represent a business and its interests, because they are the interests of the chief executive. And when PR professionals sit at the center of that process, they forge closer, more personal, and longer lasting relationships with clients.
Scott Gerber is the chief executive of The Community Company, an organization that builds and manages invitation-only membership communities for media companies and global brands. He is the co-author of the book “Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter.” Follow him on Twitter @scottgerber.