Mail Online's edit staff moonlights as ad creators

For many publishers trying to jump on the native advertising gravy train, the biggest challenge is running sponsor content that’s actually high quality. The irony of this is publishers have plenty of experts in creating compelling content with their journalists. But the church-and-state divide typically makes this not feasible.

There are no such qualms at Mail Online, the digital arm of U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail, where journalists are regularly enlisted to create content on behalf of advertisers. Writing sponsor content is voluntary, according to Mail Online, although journalists do “sometimes” get extra pay for their efforts. And they’re not apologizing or hiding from it. In fact, Mail Online runs journalists’ bylines on the pieces, a move designed not only for transparency but also for commitment to sponsor content being held to a high standard.

“This is what works to make journalism self-sufficient,” said North America CEO Jon Steinberg, who noted sponsor content is now part of just about every ad campaign proposal. “It’s amazing the debate continues to go on when advertorials have been around forever.”

A recent example of this is a monthlong campaign kicked off last week for T-Mobile. Mail Online pitched the carrier with a content program that’s part of a larger ad package for T-Mobile’s new home-networking technologies. The thinking: The product is fairly difficult to explain and content is the best way to accomplish that. That’s where Mail Online’s U.S. technology and science editor Mark Prigg comes into the picture. In the first of five sponsored offerings, he was enlisted to create the first piece of the program, a detailed examination of the “10 surprising hacks to improve your home’s technology for FREE.”

The piece is wrapped by a T-Mobile advertising “skin,” and carries “Sponsored by T-Mobile” in blue. Unlike other publishers, Mail Online does not file its native ad stories ina sponsored section — this piece is in its science and tech vertical.

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The effort would likely give journalism professors the willies, but the results could feasibly back up Mail Online’s contention that reporters are the best people to create sponsor content. It was viewed over 40,000 times, with time spent averaging four minutes, according to Mail Online. The article page shows over 300 social media shares and 12 comments.

Mail Online is not alone in enlisting editorial staff to create advertiser content. Mental Floss, for instance, does the same. Several U.K. publications do too.

“The good part of having reporters do it is you have subject matter experts,” Steinberg said.

There are, of course, obvious conflicts. Prigg is expected to continue to cover T-Mobile, even though he’s written an advertisement for the brand. If called on to review a T-Mobile product, for example, Steinberg would expect him to block out the earlier work and review the product on the merits. Of course, it would have been sticky had Prigg been the reporter on this Mail piece from July about the Federal Trade Commission alleging T-Mobile bilked customers.

That’s why most publishers, Digiday included, have set up separate “content studios” to handle sponsor content. Steinberg, whose former employer BuzzFeed employed this approach, does not see the need in his new post. The key, he said, is simply to keep the focus on quality and creating “Mail-style” content. For that reason, at least in the beginning, Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke is personally editing each sponsor content post. T-Mobile also got to see the content prior to publication but only made minor edits rather than “whole sale tear-ups,” in Steinberg’s words.

For T-Mobile, the overall program from Mail Online — it includes four homepage takeovers, a custom video and other standard video and display ad placements — was the major draw. But the involvement of a tech journalist with over a decade of experience to produce the content didn’t hurt either. In the end, the goal was simply telling a complex story in a way regular consumers could understand and find interesting, said Peter DeLuca, svp of brand and advertising at T-Mobile, whether the content was created by a “real reporter” or a brand content specialist.

“It’s real content and well put together from knowledgeable source,” he said. “It does make it more attractive.”