The way some publishers approach custom content – as a dirty little secret – is regrettable. And I could use a stronger word.
True, it is signed off by and bought by a third-party, typically a company that has been and maybe still is a traditional advertiser. But it isn’t dirty, it certainly isn’t little (judging by the revenue now at stake) and let’s face it, we all know it’s happening – so not a secret.
Yet there are several reasons why it has a bad reputation.
- There’s a feeling, especially among some journalists, that readers don’t value it, certainly not to the degree they value independent editorial.
- In many cases execution has been poor, so yes, for that reason readers haven’t valued it.
- Operationally, in some companies, it can fall between departments – very much so in terms of writing, commissioning and editing but also elsewhere, in areas such as ad ops.
- There is a feeling by some that the whole endeavour is – largely – about conning readers into thinking they are reading something ‘normal’.
Given those things, here are some tips for doing it well. These are written with commercial, mainly editorially-driven media owners in mind, rather than content agencies or content marketing teams, for whom there are fewer conflicts.
- Know who owns custom content In sales teams this is usually easy. (Answer: anyone who can sell it.) But elsewhere publishing directors need to let those in marketing/design/tech/ad ops etc. know the nature of the projects that will be coming their way or for which they have to devise new products (eg supplements, microsites, apps, infographics).
- Only involve editorial teams appropriately I realise this is hard in some small publishers or publications but you need to have someone on point who can advise agencies and clients on what’s appropriate to be included or excluded, to represent the creative face of content. Could be the editor or someone such as a special projects or commercial editor, ideally.
- Keep journalists separate Again, this can be hard. But picture the reporter who one week has to grill an executive at a press conference but who the next week is asked into a room to work with the same exec on some commercial copy. Credibility is stretched, to say the least. Without a full-time custom content team – which is rare – commission content from freelance writers.
- Be open, be honest Don’t try to pass off custom content as editorially independent. Make it useful, make it as high-quality as anything else and label it clearly. (There are a hundred variations on what to call it – choose one you’re happy with and stick to it.) Your goal is for the reader to value it as much as anything else you’re delivering.
- Don’t be ashamed The world and his wife knows that custom content is a part of the media mix that has grown strongly in recent years and continues to do so. Marketers representing brands know the results it brings, whether around awareness, leads or even sales in some cases. If you stuff it in a little grey box below the fold, in an alien font and colours alongside uninspired creative it will look bad. Indeed it will then be your dirty little secret.
What do you think? We’d love to hear comments at the end of this post.
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