It’s time to flip the table on our usual Content Marketing All-Stars interviews. For this installment, we dove into native advertising and brand partnerships from a publisher’s perspective. Whether his team is telling you how to make the ideal iced coffee, giving you the lowdown on testing your dog’s DNA or offering up clever money-saving tips, Ryan Harwood, CEO of digital lifestyle publication PureWow, has branded content on the brain. We talked to Ryan, who adopted native advertising before it was cool, about connecting with readers, measuring success and why having visuals and video is key.
What is PureWow’s relationship with content marketing? How does it plays into your overall content strategy?
Our relationship is a close relationship. We make a majority of our revenue from branded content. Several years ago, editors had the idea to do content marketing with a client because it made a lot of sense from a utility perspective. We thought there was a way to subtly and seamlessly integrate a brand into great content in a way that would be enjoyable for the user. After that, the time spent on that destination, the clickthrough rates, the social shares, everything was just better than any other form of advertising that we were doing at the time. It was fortunate because then, all of a sudden, the whole industry was shifting towards making this be the hot buzzworthy thing and we were already ahead of the curve.
Being an early adopter of content marketing, do you feel pressure to continually innovate and keep up?
That’s the case for not only content marketing, but product we’re creating on a daily basis, the UX design of the whole entire site. We’re constantly trying to push the envelope, staying ahead of the competition when it comes to destinations we’re creating for brands as well as the UX and design, using different technologies to make it that much more interesting and interactive for the user.
There are a lot of brands with a company blog, but not as many designated content platforms incorporating sponsored content. How is content marketing different with the latter? Are there added challenges when you’re already known for your stories?
We built an audience and we have a trusting relationship with them because they enjoy our content already. The tone and voice is appealing to them, the type of content we write about everyday is appealing to them. We use data, we use analytics, we look at daily visits as our main focus. For us, when we’re integrating the brand into content, we know what content is going to resonate and we’re just seamlessly integrating that brand into content that has utility. There’s a big difference between an audience that’s coming to you for content versus a product.
You want to respect the audience and have integrity, but what our readers have told us time and time again is that they don’t mind advertising. Advertising is not a bad word. Advertising is a bad word when it becomes intrusive. We’re educating them about a certain topic and getting the brand into that educational process. The way we define native is that the content needs to have utility, regardless of the brand being involved or not.
Can you talk us through the process of creating partnerships for PureWow? What do you look for when evaluating a partnership, especially from a content perspective?
We’re a lifestyle publication and we write about so many different topics: fashion and beauty, health and wellness, arts and culture, dining, recipes, money, technology, so there are very few brands that don’t make sense for why someone is coming to our site to begin with.
The process is first meeting editors and our sales marketing folks to make sure the brand makes sense. Everyone has so many different goals. Some people want to create video content to raise brand awareness, other people want to do a social activity on Facebook or Pinterest to show that the brand is socially savvy, other people want to sell products or get people to our site. We ask for someone to define their one primary goal and a secondary goal [and] we come up with ideas that involve calls to action or more of an awareness situation. A lot of people in the industry have separate teams, with editors for a creative sales team that will create this content. We use our editors because we don’t take the content down from our site unless the client demands we do so because it’s outdated. We view it as having utility, regardless of the brand being there or not. We allow the agencies to have final approval, but nobody is allowed to dictate what we could change.
PureWow has a wide range of story topics and regional audiences. Have you found that content marketing works better with some sections of the site than others?
I think it’s more about the content that we come up with within that category that dictates how well it does. Sometimes that has to do with KPIs. Tech does pop a bunch, [along with] efficiency and finding ways to save time. Technology in general is something our audiences are fascinated by because no one really talks to them about technology. When you look at all these other publications, whether TechCrunch or Gizmodo, their tone of voice is not very appealing to an audience like ours, so it’s something unique that we provide.
Beyond clicks, how to you gauge how readers are responding to your content marketing efforts?
Time spent is a huge one, average time spent with the site itself, social sharing, Facebook and Pinterest. We’ll do research afterwards to see if there was brand lift or purchase intent, or an affinity to buy or book or do something with that brand vs. their competitor’s brand. We still look at click-through. Even though it’s a basic metric, we think it’s important. We also use some heat map technology to see where the user is spending time on the page, where their mouse is on the click. Were they on a certain part of the page more than the rest of it? We look at how slow they scroll down. Are they scrolling down halfway through the page? Are we getting a completion rate fully down the page? When we’re creating custom videos that we’re integrating brands into, of course views and completion rates are important.
Speaking of Pinterest, do you think all brands can leverage the platform? How do you decide which social channels to use?
Pinterest is a very specific demographic. I think you need to see traction on your editorial content on Pinterest before you start trying to use it on your native efforts. As much as it’s a very powerful platform, I think there are only certain demographics that will succeed on it. Same token, there are some platforms that don’t work well for us like Foursquare or Tumblr, whereas a lot of other sites have had success with that. I think you have to look at your demographic and test and learn and test and learn and integrate that into your native advertising once you’ve seen it work with editorial efforts. You’re stretching yourself way too thin if you do every single social media channel. There are too many right now.
What makes PureWow’s content even more eye-catching is the use of visuals and video. How do you use this to help leverage social media efforts?
Visuals are a huge part of our success in general. People don’t want to share things that aren’t image-heavy. It’s more time-consuming, it’s more expensive to do big, beautiful images. That’s the catch-22 for certain publishers, but for us it’s worth it. We have a demographic that’s discerning. They digest content visually first, so it’s important to us and I think it’s a big part of the reason why we’ll see greater social stats with visitors, especially on Pinterest. There was a big movement in the past 8 to 12 months where everyone was redesigning their site to look like Pinterest. I don’t know if you have to go that far but I think you do have to make your site very visually interesting one way or another. And video is huge. You get people spending more time on your site with it, more time with your content, longer than an article. It’s easier to form an emotional connection with a video, especially when you’re integrating music and graphics and high production value versus just talking heads. We try to form this emotional connection with music and graphics I think [images and videos] are both big parts of our brand and a big reason why customers feel comfortable sharing our content.
Almost every company has a newsletter, but only a handful are eye-catching, and PureWow definitely falls into that category. What do you think makes a good newsletter? How has this distribution tool helped your content marketing efforts?
I have to answer carefully because it is part of our special sauce, so to say. It’s one of those things that does give us a leg up in the marketplace. Too many people view email as a means to an end. It’s more of a traffic driving tool. We think it’s probably the most intimate place on the internet for someone to consume content and we give them original content in the email every day. I don’t think anyone views our email as promotional content. They look forward to this article we’re giving them every day. They know we’re not going to waste their time. It’s going to be enjoyable, unique and under-the-radar discovery of some sort. We’re not asking you to jump through hoops to get that content. We’re giving it to you in that email.
What advice do you have for someone who’s just starting out with content marketing?
[Have] the sensibility to know how you’re not going to offend your audience, while still being able to integrate them into the content you’re creating. Let’s say there’s a woman in her kitchen in Montana who creates recipes every day. She can still integrate a brand into certain posts as long as she’s not swaying from what she’s staying true to—same target audience, same type of content, and able to bring this in a seamless way. I think you have to have the foresight to be a content creator and understand your audience, but still understand what your advertiser wants. You need to have a business brain and an editorial brain.
Where do you see content marketing going in the future?
I think that it’s only going to get stronger and stronger. Obviously advertisers are getting more savvy. They want more, they’re demanding more, they’re not settling for just display ads anymore. I think the big players are going to need to adapt or die and they need to do so quickly.