Street in Chinatown in Asia

The Hybrid model for branded content in Asia

In Feature by Peter Gearin2 Comments

The world’s biggest brands are using native advertising, even classic advertorials, to reach young and savvy audiences.

Monash University had a dilemma. As the first foreign university in Malaysia, Monash had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its Bandar Sunway campus in Kuala Lumpur. Its goal was to educate 10,000 students as part of a South-East Asia research hub.

The Melbourne-based university, which boasts author Peter Carey and playwright David Williamson as alumni, knew it had a great story to tell. Monash University Malaysia was good news for the university and good news for society. Monash’s problem was how it was going to increase awareness for its ambitious plans among Asian youth. It wanted to reach Malaysian students, in particular, who might prefer to study a Western curriculum within their own country at a reasonable cost.

As many businesses and organisations in Asia-Pacific are doing, Monash looked to branded content as a way of getting the word out.

Hybrid News Group has digital publications that appeal to young professionals in emerging markets, with offices in Bristol (its UK base), Sydney, Kuala Lumpur and Bogota, Colombia. Hybrid’s editorial hub, in Kuala Lumpur, has 15 journalists (with plans for 30 by the end of 2017). Its year-on-year revenue was up 69 per cent in 2016 and its digital titles now attract 6 million unique visitors every month.

Monash enlisted Hybrid to create a branded article for AsianCorrespondent.com, which covers political, education and media issues across the region. The article it generated for Monash, “Malaysia: Asia’s emerging higher education hub”, was published in April 2016. Labelled “sponsored content” and without a byline, that article has had more than 37,000 social media “interactions” and been read by close to 1 million people, Hybrid claims.

Hybrid’s managing director James Craven says the Monash University experience shows how branded content can help a client achieve a clear objective. “It’s a wonderful, ambitious plan and a great story from an education, business and societal perspective,” Craven says. “Our story is a good example of the method coming alive.”

Branded content performance

Asia is already a branded-content powerhouse. A region with such a large, young, tech-savvy and upwardly mobile population offers big opportunities for multinational companies with deep pockets wanting to engage in brand storytelling.

The signs of success are strong. A 2014 study by Waggener Edstrom Communications found 78 per cent of Asian digital consumers obtained information about products and services using social media and that greater online engagement with branded content led to increased spending.

Local marketers are certainly willing to make branded content work for their companies and clients. A 2016 survey by WARC and King Content of more than 300 advertising and marketing professionals across 16 Asia-Pacific markets revealed that two out of three had a “positive” or “very positive” attitude towards native advertising. Almost one in three had started using branded content and 61 per cent were likely to consider it in the future.

“Native advertising is a cost-effective way for brands to amplify their marketing efforts and capture hard-to-reach consumers [who are] more cynical toward traditional advertising,” says Warc Asia Pacific’s managing director Ed Pank.

Sentiment is one thing, however – performance is another. While it’s acknowledged that branded content generally offers better click-through rates than digital display ads, another 2016 study found that clicks were harder to find in Asia-Pacific than anywhere else in the world. This study, by technology platform Polar, found the average click-through rate for content marketing campaigns in Asia-Pacific was 0.27 per cent, well below Europe (0.55 per cent) and the Middle East and Africa (0.4 per cent). Australian branded content campaigns fared worst of all, averaging a click-through rate of just 0.16 per cent.

A glimpse of sunshine in the Polar figures was in the “dwell” rate – how long consumers remained on the content once opened. The research found Asian audiences consumed content for an average of 199 seconds, significantly above the global average of 140 seconds. (Australians showed less patience, reporting an average dwell time of less than two minutes.)

Evidence of sluggish audience behaviour doesn’t bother Hybrid News Group. Craven says 75 per cent of Hybrid’s 2016 revenue – $4.05 million – came through branded content campaigns, and that these executions performed much better than display ads. He puts this down to the pervasive influence of social media: “Good stories get shared, so good viral storytelling means you can reach millions of customers in one day at low cost.”

Craven claims the “engagement rate” for Hybrid’s branded content is 10-20 per cent. “I think this reflects the ability to target the right readers through their behaviour and demography – not just the device and geographic targeting that display offers,” he says. “Our campaign data tells us that millennials respond more favourably to branded content than display ads.”

Editorial v advertorial

Craven says Hybrid doesn’t have a single model for its branded content – the approach is determined by what it believes works best for the client. This means Hybrid’s mastheads sometimes run content that is classic “advertorial” alongside its editorial. Recent examples include “Everyone’s a winner: The perks of Wyndham’s attractive rewards scheme” for TravelWireAsia.com and “Japan Airlines: Boldly flying you into tomorrow’s fast-paced world” for AsianCorrespondent.com.

“We don’t think there’s anything wrong with [content] being an ad as long as it’s effective,” Craven says. “We have a lengthy discovery and creative process with the client before writing starts. We’ve run some cryptic, subliminal and newsy stories and we’ve been quite direct on others.

“We’ve got creative views on every campaign but a lot depends on the client and the campaign objectives. We’ve paired text with infographics, video and audio on lots of campaigns, and they’ve contributed tremendously to our numbers.”

Hybrid’s journalists tend to write either independent editorial or branded content – not both. “The branded team works a lot more with digital on analytics, social marketing and behavioural targeting while the independent team is more focused on organic readership growth,” Craven says.

“We’re planning some very creative campaigns this year with different approaches. On all of these campaigns, the journalists will enjoy the freedom to present the facts on a particular issue or trending topic in a creative manner. But if it’s ‘branded’, we will still run it past the client for amendments and approval before publication.”

“Using different touch-points to tell brand stories is important for our readership because a lot of our readers speak different languages.”James Craven

Craven says editorial-oriented brands such as Forbes, Mashable and The New York Times (through T-Brand Studios) allow clients to write their own advertorial content, while Quartz and Buzzfeed offer a more creative process based around editorial “pillars”. “We write all branded content ourselves but we’re not rigid on one particular house style,” Craven says. “What works for a tech firm like Oracle is not necessarily the right approach for Japan Airlines. All of our sponsored content is clearly labelled. It projects honesty and integrity on our part, and the reader knows there is some form of promotion going on.”

Branded content works best when the stories are informative, entertaining and shareable, he says. “We work hard with brands to keep the stories as real as possible. We have long and detailed discovery and planning meetings before writing begins to go through all the available editorial pillars and figure out the most compelling ideas and angles. We show them our analytics of successful stories and talk through why so many people read them and why people are inclined to share them.”

He says that while readers come to Hybrid sites for their “independent” coverage of technology and travel, they aren’t just looking for news. “Over 90 per cent of our content is completely independent,” Craven says. “Branded content revenues mean we don’t need to run page takeovers or intrusive interstitials that can turn readers away.”

Asia focus

More premium publishers in Asia are producing branded content in-house. One of the region’s most influential news titles, the South China Morning Post, has a creative solutions team that has worked with brands such as Audi Hong Kong, Marriott and Dunhill.

Craven says the biggest opportunities for publishers and brands are universities marketing to international students, hotels selling to travellers, software companies promoting themselves to tech executives and corporates preaching social responsibility to 18-35 year olds. In 2017, Hybrid will also continue pursuing clients in property, personal investment, sport and entertainment.

Craven believes the combination of written content and vivid photography, video and audio have a part to play in the future of branded content, especially in Asia. “I think using different touch-points to tell brand stories is quite important for our Asia-wide readership because a lot of our readers speak different languages and have English as their second language,” he says.

“Branded content is at its best when it brings life to a brand’s story. It can be used to tell real stories about sustainable supply chains, reducing carbon emissions, positive workplace relations and volunteering or philanthropy work that goes on every day. A major challenge for consumers is differentiating between brands that champion certain causes just to look good on paper and those that illustrate they are truly standing for a purpose.”

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