The Wall Street Journal’s guide to making great native ads

The Wall Street Journal is relatively new to the native advertising game. The paper launched its native initiative at the tail end of 2013, and just this spring announced WSJ Custom Studios, a new division for creating custom native content for big brands. The division launched its first product, Narratives, in March with a three-month campaign for Brocade. 

Spearheading the Journal’s native initiative is Trevor Fellows, the paper’s global head of advertising sales. “While native is seen by many as a huge opportunity, most of our clients are finding it somewhat painful,” Fellows told a crowd of media industry leaders at the Digiday Publishing Summit Thursday in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Fellows, who oversees a 30-person content studio, outlined five key elements to making that process less painful in a presentation titled “How to Get Native Ads Right.”

The chief takeaways:

Get aligned
“When we first started talking to clients about native, we found it’s critically important for them to understand why they’re doing it,” Fellows said. The key to getting all parties aligned is to not only figure out why a native ad campaign might be the right strategy, but understanding what the metrics of success are.

“Get aligned with the publishers themselves,” Fellows added. Figure out which pages get the highest engagement, which stories are most likely to get shared. It’s essential to understand which content works best in that publisher’s environment in order to create native for that environment.

Act quickly
Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to strike. Lagging kills. “Few of our clients don’t have competitors — all of whom are thinking about native,” said Fellows.

One tactic: Work with the news cycle. “Advertisers who produce native which can be aligned with the news are able to enjoy a great deal of attention,” he said. Of course, that means getting content approved and out there quickly. As an example, Fellows, a Brit, pointed to Thursday’s Scottish referendum. “Those advertisers who were able to get good content out around the Scottish independence vote are going to get more attention than tired, timeless content.”

Make it interesting
Being timely is worthless if your content isn’t good, though. There is a significant audience attention deficit when it comes to native ads, said Fellows. Just two-thirds of an audience engages with any piece of content for more than 15 seconds online. That number drops by half when it comes to native. “A lot of people are finding native kind of dull,” said Fellows.

The solution: Make it funny, make it useful or make it provocative. Humor is notoriously difficult for a brand to pull off, but the potential rewards are great. More brands might have success with providing a service with their native. Fellows cited Pandora’s campaign for Gatorade in which the music-streaming platform created workout playlists on behalf of the sports drink in a campaign that generated enormous social traffic. The New York Times scored a giant hit with its provocative work on behalf of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”

Once you have great, timely content, the key is to get it out in front of people. Make the content available, sharable and snackable. A great native program, he said, can provide 12, 14 pieces of content across a long period of time. “It’s time consuming if every time they want to create a piece of native it has to be done from scratch,” he said. “We should do a better job.”

Measure, measure, measure
Data and analytics are critically important, said Fellows. “Too much is sold without sufficiently understanding its impact,” he added, stressing the need for transparency. “[We] open the kimono of our analytics to our advertisers.”

Watch Trevor Fellows’ full presentation below:

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