Melanie Deziel has an impressive record in branded journalism. In the three years since she received a Master of Arts in journalism from Syracuse University, Deziel has worked with some of the biggest names in branded content, including The Huffington Post, The New York Times and Time Inc. She has won two prestigious awards for her work with Netflix and the New York Times. Deziel is now one of the leading lights in the branded content world, advising clients around the globe. Here, the sought-after keynote speaker tells us about the power of branded content and why, with many publishers receiving 50 percent of their ad revenue from this source, it’s not going away any time soon.
Juliet Stott: You’re an advocate of brand journalism. What is it, and how does it differ from pure journalism?
Melanie Deziel: Branded content has the same aim and purpose of journalism—to enlighten someone—without necessarily having an overt goal to sell something. Brand journalism is about putting the story, not the sell, at the center. That can be tough for brands because they’re a business and want to make money.
What do you say to critics of brand journalism who call it deceptive or of low quality?
By and large, the folks who criticize it as deceptive are usually not criticizing the quality but whether it should be happening at all. They tend to come from a staunch journalism background and want to make sure the editorial integrity of the publication is being protected, which is valid. It’s important that the separation between what we call the church and state is maintained for the benefit of the publication as well as the readers. After all, the reason an advertiser would want to work with a publisher is because of the relationship it has with that audience–so, preserving it through disclosure and labelling is incredibly important. But critics overlook the vital benefit of this arrangement. Many publishers now receive more than 50 percent of their digital ad revenue from teams creating co-branded content.
You authored the award-winning, co-branded piece “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” for Netflix in the New York Times. How did you apply your journalistic skills and training to craft the piece?
We pitched an investigative piece to Netflix that sought to uncover women’s experiences in prison, and how that differs from the male perspective. Our process was journalism-driven. We wanted to look into this in the same way we would have if we were in a newsroom. So, it started with a lot of interviews. I interviewed women who had been through the prison system as well as those currently serving a sentence. I spoke to those who worked in prisons, to researchers and to reform workers, and went through a lot of government data to uncover trends, which I took back to the sources to get their reactions. I worked with reliable data and pulled all of the information together to create a narrative that helped people understand a problem they might not have known existed.
“Women Inmates” was in the top 2 percent of all viewed content on the New York Times’ site in 2014, including its own editorial. Why was this piece of content successful?
Up until that point, a lot of branded content was created in a single format: articles, slideshows or video. A great deal of multimedia didn’t exist. This was one of the first times, on a big scale, that a branded content piece included a lengthy article, infographics, audio, illustrations and video. We really tried to replicate multimedia journalism happening in our newsroom. So, that surprised people. I think the fact that the story was serious and had a social impact differentiated it from other branded content too. It also helped that the piece was commissioned by Netflix, a brand people have a great affinity to. But it’s important to note that there was a fairly substantial paid distribution plan, so we had a head start in terms of making sure our content was seen by readers who were likely to engage with it. Not all of our editorial gets the same benefit.
How did the piece meet Netflix’s key performance indicators?
We were lucky that Netflix didn’t evaluate the success of that piece based on an increase in viewing figures. Our primary objective was to raise awareness of the fact that the show was based on real stories. It may be humorous at times, and have loveable and relatable characters, but it’s also tackling important social issues, based on the reality of women’s experiences in our prisons. Our campaign raised awareness of these issues with the New York Times’ audience, who is socially conscious and interested in public policy. Netflix was also looking to show what could be done from a native storytelling perspective. All of the coverage we received, including the several awards we won for it, was a feather in its cap.
When should brands consider using native advertising over other forms of advertising or content marketing?
Brand journalism is a big investment in time and resources. As a brand, you have to do a bit of soul-searching of what stories you can—and want—to tell. I don’t think all brands are ready to do that, which is OK. But for those that are, and want to connect with their consumers on a deeper level by having an emotional conversation with them or providing them with a service, content provides a great opportunity to do that in an authentic way. However, brands must be ready to take a half step back from the sell to make sure they’re putting their consumer at the center of the storytelling.
You recently created a biweekly newsletter, The Overlap League. Who is the newsletter aimed at, and what is your unique selling point for readers?
When I first got into native advertising, I found it to be an isolating experience. The more I talked to others making the transition from editorial or trying to break into this space, the more I found they felt something very similar. Nothing unified our community, which is made up of people from different backgrounds. So, I wanted to create something that brought us all together. After the Netflix piece, a lot of folks were reaching out to me for job recommendations and asking me where they could keep up with the industry’s news. I couldn’t help everyone individually, so I set about creating a resource that people could share and benefit from. My goals are to provide people with information to enable them to do their jobs better, to help them feel like they’re part of a native ad community and to connect them to other people. In each issue, I curate the top five articles coming from the industry. I give three recent examples of native advertising in practice and explain what people can learn from them. I keep people up to date with industry trends and job opportunities. I also include resources such as upcoming events and webinars that might be useful.
What’s your prediction about native advertising in 2017?
Native media advertising will continue to grow, but it will evolve. The formats we use to get traffic may change as new media and social channels come to the fore. Brands must stay open to those changes, as an unwillingness to do so is an indication they’ll struggle in the years to come. Keeping an open mind and being willing to experiment are the keys to staying on top of the industry.