A New Generation of Content Integration

My initiation into online content integration came when I was assigned the digital media buying duties for a roofing company. A sizeable home and garden site made the pitch: its editors would write an original article about knowing when the time is right to replace your roof, and link to a buyer’s guide on my client’s site. The buy would also double as a sponsorship to include a logo and adjacent banner ad.

At the time, the results were impressive. The concept of interweaving an advertiser with a trusted site brand was still a newfangled one, and as a result both the client and the consumers who experienced the content took notice.

That was about eight years ago. Today, content integration is as chronic as a tweet from Ashton Kutcher – but just as easy to overlook. Consumers often aren’t aware that what they’re seeing is sponsored content – whether it’s an article or an informational video – despite the blatantly relevant adjoining ads. In a way, that’s the point; some of the best examples of integrated content are those that are so subtle – the advertiser and the publisher so perfectly intertwined – that nobody would suspect any money had changed hands.

Then there are those examples that seem to use every trick in the book (and every ad unit in the business) to create a subterfuge so overt that it smacks the consumer in the face with the advertising brand and willingly overshadows the content.

Take McCormick & Company’s McCormick brand’s current placement on CBS Interactive-owned trendy food and recipe site Chow.

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The article is titled “Cooking With Spices” and introduces the consumer to numerous ways in which to “spice up” commonplace dishes. There are five ad placements surrounding the content, including a sponsorship logo, three banner units, and a background skin. If you’re a visitor to this site page, there’s no way you’re overlooking the impetus for the content.

This type of approach is certainly far less delicate than what consumers used to get (and on some sites, still do). That isn’t to say, however, that it doesn’t have its merits. Its value is dependent on the nature of the ads and the way in which they’re placed; in other words, although the publisher still plays a critical role, it’s up to the advertiser now to manage her own success. What follows are a few caveats to consider when negotiating your own content integration partnerships.

Keep Creative Unique

When you own so many units on a single site page, you run the risk of creative repetition. Consumers may tolerate your dominant presence, but you limit your odds of interaction by serving two or three identical ad units when you could be leveraging the space you have by keeping multiple unique banners in rotation. Allocate a little more of your budget to creative to produce a variety of units that offer different messaging, but be certain not to stray too far from the contextual theme of the content, or the brand imagery that you’re hoping your site visitors will retain long before they leave the page.

Encourage Interaction

When strategizing content integration partnerships on TV – where this phenomenon first began – brands know that their products will have the most impact if they’re worn by the characters or incorporated into the action. It’s the difference between having a contestant on a reality show win a wireless phone in a challenge, and requiring her to actually use that phone in order to complete it.

The equivalent of this online lies with the interactivity inherent to the ad campaign. Roll-over functionality in a banner ad is good, but roll-over functionality that reveals a video demonstrating the differentiating features of the product – or in the case of McCormick, a link to a Facebook app that allows users to associate their friends’ personalities with spices in a McCormick recipe – is much better. These approaches are better equipped to engage consumers and familiarize them with the essence of your brand.

Ensure Content Is Good…but Not Too Good

In a case where a publisher is willing to produce original content based on your particular product or service, the advertiser has the added responsibility of acting as editor-at-large. This can be a daunting task. The site’s editorial and production teams may struggle to balance their duty to their loyal consumers and their obligation to their paying advertisers. The advertiser must therefore act as its own brand advocate to ensure the message at the heart of the content remains in line with campaign objectives.

There’s another issue at play here: the advertiser doesn’t actually benefit from having consumers linger too long on the content. In content integration partnerships, the content serves two purposes: to inform and educate consumers, and to motivate them to connect with the advertiser. Certainly, there’s branding value to be had, but if a site’s content is so engaging that consumers lose themselves in it and click to related texts instead of the advertiser’s site, there’s a possibility that the publisher will benefit far more than its client. This is one case where bland content – articles and videos that are just good enough to lure the user in, but not so “spicy” that they draw attention away from the ads – actually serves a purpose.

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