Tessa Gould - HuffPost Partner Studio
The HuffPost Partner Studio has emerged as thought-leader, trend-setter, and taste-maker in recent years, as it gathered momentum in sponsored content as the term “native-advertising” took hold. Led by Tessa Gould, the team has produced some of the web’s most popular pieces of branded content. Here, Tessa gives us background on how the program came to be, and what its future entails.
How did you end up in this role at the HuffPost Partner Studio?
Prior to my current role at HuffPost I was working for AOL in their Global Strategy Development (GSD) team, working on a number of high profile projects for AOL’s owned and operated (O&O) properties, which includes the Huffington Post whom they acquired back in 2011.
In fact, the GSD team performed much of the initial research and analysis that formed Huffington Post’s international expansion. I definitely enjoyed working on that team, but a number of opportunities arose to take a more hands on approach to helping some of these sites scale their businesses; the HuffPost being one of them.
I saw that native advertising in particular presented a real opportunity for them; they had been doing a bit of sponsored content since 2010, but there hadn’t been a lot of revenue growth or innovation. The opportunity was ripe for the taking.
When did the Huffington Post realize they needed to evolve their native advertising efforts, and build the HuffPost Partner Studio?
There wasn’t one day where we just woke up and realized, “Today’s the day!”
While native advertising had been generating tangible revenue for Huffington Post in the 2-3 years that followed the launch of their very first program (IBM Smarter Ideas), we collectively made a decision early last year that it was time to really take things up a notch. We were seeing significant uptick in interest from agencies and brands. Buzzfeed was blowing up and it as an opportune time to double down and really assert our position clear in the space and turn native advertising into a significant driver of both domestic and international revenue.
Thus, we launched HuffPost Partner Studio, significantly expanded the team, revamped our go-to-market strategy, starting working with Polar and moved our business to an ad-served cross-platform native advertising model.
WORKING WITH ADVERTISERS
Could you describe the current dynamic between marketers/advertisers and the Partner Studio? Is there anything you’d change to smooth or speed up the process?
This is one area that can get a little sugar coated. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. What I will say is that the dynamic is constantly shifting. When it does work well it can be a glorious collaboration between creative problem solvers. On the flipside, due to the bespoke nature of what we do and the fact that all our native content is co-created from scratch, the path to development can get clogged up and communication can break down, particularly as more and more parties are added to the mix.
In the most convoluted scenarios you may have the media agency, the creative agency, a PR firm, and brand folk involved, in addition to our own Content Strategist, Project Manager, and Account Management. Sometimes it can be too many cooks in the kitchen. On the flip side – particularly with a client or brand that’s really in the early stages of experimenting with native advertising – that support network and having the agencies involved can be really helpful (as they’ve typically worked on a native campaign before) and can really help support us by educating the client.
With regards to speeding up the process, more direct client communication and dealing with more brands directly always helps, as well as increased standardization and best practices for more granular stuff within the native advertising sphere.
You may have read a piece by Mashable CRO Seth Rogin last month, but I thought he really hit the nail on the head when he said the current industry definition of native means too many things to too many people. That’s where some of the shortcomings are today. A lot of best practices and guidelines put forward by industry cover that entire definition versus subsets or nuggets within it.
What native advertising means and how it should be handled by a publisher, specifically a news publisher like us, is very different beast from the likes of an IAB ad unit with native elements, which presently falls under the native advertising definition.
What are marketers and advertisers number one question when initiating their first potential native ad campaign?
I asked my salespeople what they thought the number one question was and they each gave me a different answer, which leads me to believe – in fact, I know for a fact – that new native clients, which many of ours are, ask a lot of questions.
The most common questions that I see on a daily basis are: Who’s creating the content? Is Huffington Post creating the content? How much involvement does there need to be on the part of the client or agency?
The second set of questions is how much integration will the brand receive? How integrated can the product messaging be within the content? They also want to know about the amplification or distribution strategy for the content. They want to know about benchmarks of success, how the content will be measured, and if often ask if we guarantee pageviews (we don’t currently). They also want to know what native looks like on The Huffington Post; basically, they want to know what they’re getting for their spend.
One that has been coming up way more in recent months is marketers asking about what rights they have to the content. We see more brands wanting to lean on publisher studios like ours to create content for them which doesn’t necessarily live on our platform or that they wish to re-use on their own platforms.
Those are undoubtedly the top 5-6 questions we get and shows the evolution of thought in the last year regarding purchasing space in sponsored content.
DISCLOSURE AND PAID AMPLIFICATION
What do you feel constitutes the right amount of disclosure in displaying native advertising? How did the Huffington Post reach consensus on their approach to disclosure?
When I arrived at HuffPost there were already standards in place; specifically, sponsored content was disclosed via a pill that read “Sponsored Feature”. During my first few months on the job, we did a pretty thorough market assessment which included a deep-dive on labeling and disclosure; we examined how it was being handled at other publishers, large and small, as well as what industry bodies were recommending, and best practices put forward by industry commentators and academics. We distilled these findings and eventually presented them to the Huffington Post editorial team and worked with them to create a set of standards we thought would best inform readers and clearly delineate our native content from editorial. That was a huge concern for the managing editors and our editorial standards team.
It was also important from a design perspective that it jived with the overall look and feel of our site. Today our labelling (Presented by Brand X) appears both on the native storytelling unit (otherwise known as the promo unit) which you would see you before you click on the content, but also on the actual article page, which you see after you click.
We also always use an attribution statement within the piece, identifying the advertiser and their involvement in the piece.
I don’t think many publishers do this as well, but even after the campaign ends and the sponsor’s ads no longer appear around the piece, our labeling and disclosure remains firmly intact. So if you were to find the article via search 2-3 years after the campaign finished, you would very quickly be able to ascertain that it was in fact a piece of sponsored content and who the sponsor was.
Going forward, HuffPost Partner Studio will also appear in the byline of all our native pieces.
How do you feel about paid amplification? What methods do you use? What would you say is its value?
Until recently, paid amplification was not something we really used. We have over 800M PVs a month on our domestic US site and 115M global ComScore uniques, so scale hasn’t really been an issue for us. Unlike many of the small publishers that compete in the space, we’ve been very fortunate in that we haven’t had to buy traffic just to ensure that our content actually gets seen.
One of the big things a brand is trying to do when they partner with a particular site on native advertising is reach the audience of that platform. So, as a publisher, it’s important that you surface the content to that audience. Simply buying traffic elsewhere in order to guarantee page views runs counter to that notion.
However, paid social amplification done properly can be a highly effective way to extend the reach of your content and amplify it’s performance on platforms where it is already organically gaining traction. This is something we have been experimenting with in recent months with Simplereach and have been extremely impressed with the results thus far.
HEROES OF NATIVE ADS
Who is the unsung hero of sponsored content at HuffPost Partner Studio?
So there is a lot of people involved in making native advertising at HuffPost a success beyond myself and the actual writers of the content. For example, Jeff Turner, our director of ad product and monetization, is seriously the man! Prior to his current role, he used to be the vertical operations lead for native at Huffington Post and is a walking, talking, ad operations and ad product guru. He was a key player in our Polar implementation and our transition to an ad-serve model, helping creating all the relevant ad products and putting all the planning processes in place. He’s definitely an unsung hero of our organization.
It goes without saying that our content strategists have been hugely influential in our success, without them there is no magic. Jessica Leader for example, joined HuffPost Partner Studio from HuffPost Green; having worked already in the Huffington Post newsroom, she has an innate understanding of our audience and what will versus will not resonate with them.
Not only is she a guru when it comes to all things ‘green’, but she is extremely passionate about food and sustainability; so was a natural fit for the Food For Thought program we launched with Chipotle. The native contente she produced for them as part of the program was incredibly successful, in fact one of the native ads she created – 9 Disgusting Things You Didn’t Know You’ve Been Eating Your Whole Life – is currently the most shared piece of sponsored content on the web for the year to date – during the campaign alone it was shared over 221k times. The fact that she came to us with an innate understanding of HuffPost Green, that space, and what worked on the site, really drove the success of those pieces and that platform.
SCALING NATIVE ADS
What is the biggest challenge for scaling your program? The biggest pain point?
It’s not so much scale by itself, and more the trade off between quantity versus quality; scaling our program without comprising our work. In order to maintain editorial standards of the site, we end up turning away a lot of business, whereas if we weren’t so concerned about quality there’s no doubt we would be doing more in the space and driving more revenue for HuffPost; we just don’t think that is a smart and sustainable strategy long-term – we like our readers too much!
How do you solve this?
You try to really get at what the advertiser is trying to achieve; the why versus the what. When you dig a little deeper into why it is they want to do native with Huffington Post, often what happens is they already have content of their own (say a video) and they’re just simply looking for distribution and to drive views to that asset. In this instance we have to go back and say: One, that’s not how we do native content, andtwo, embedding a video within an article isn’t necessarily the best way to drive views .
It can be time consuming but we always take the time to uncover exactly what it is the particular advertiser are trying to achieve. If we’re able to, we’ll always try to get them to choose something custom that we create from scratch versus just taking their existing assets blindly and putting them on a page. That’s an obstacle for being able to really scale the business.