How Politico crafts branded content with a political agenda

While most publishers rushed to set up content studios and nab native ad revenue, Politico has been slow to enter the field of branded content. Since 2013, the news outlet’s branded content strategy has mainly been to serve as a distribution channel for content that brands produced themselves or with an agency.

That’s about to change with the launch of Politico Focus, an in-house content and data studio. The unit is organized into three branches: content creation, data services and research insights. It will be able to use Politico’s ad tech infrastructure to offer audience analysis, to create custom data visualizations and to conduct research to accurately measure campaign impact.

“We chose the term ‘brand journalism’ very deliberately,” said Stephanie Losee, a former managing editor at Dell who joined Politico in May to head brand content. “We’re not saying we are going to publish investigative pieces; what we mean is that brands and organizations can and should be using their budgets to commission more journalism.”

Instead of mass reach, Politico offers an influential audience, and a desirable one at that. Advertisers tap the publication in order to reach the Washington elite: policymakers and political influencers. Their goal is usually to shift policy, change perceptions or change opinions, said Losee. For example, when the American Chemistry Council wanted to put a positive spin on the use of chemicals, it commissioned a multimedia piece on the role its members played in shipping 18,000 gallons of bleach to Sierra Leone to help fight Ebola.

Politico is taking a distributed approach to its content creation. While it has in-house editors, Politico has formed a freelancer network, which taps on sector expertise. The creators will produce all content, and work alongside the current staff of a handful, which will increase to 15 and include programmers and designers. Unlike some publications that silo content creators, Politico will not prohibit them from contributing to the newsroom at a later date.

The brand content will continue to be published in the magazine, the print edition and on the website, labeled as sponsored and with a link to a definition on the website: “content produced or curated by an advertiser.”

“With Focus, we have the ability to create not just transactional types of advertising, but a long story arc around a piece of legislation, thought leadership or corporate reputation,” said Peter Cherukuri, evp of business development at Politico and president of Focus.

Politico’s ad business is roughly divided between advocacy ads on legislation or government action and corporations looking to improve their reputations. Past clients include the Association of American Railroads, Philips and JPMorgan Chase.

Branded content is often met with skepticism, but the political nature of Politico’s content could lead it to be even more highly scrutinized, said Georgia Galanoudis, managing director of Imprint, a content marketing agency. “As a political news outlet, Politico isn’t a stranger to setting the right balance and mitigating bias in their editorial,” she wrote in an email. “But no doubt the balance will be tested as their well–informed readers will expect the same journalistic treatment and will sniff out undue bias.”

Other outlets closely covering Washington politics also face this challenge. The Hill’s native ads are currently produced with third parties while the paper builds out its own content studio. So far this year, a few dozen campaigns have run in print and online with that number picking up speed to one or two pieces a week. CQ Roll Call also publishes some sponsored content on its ad platforms.

While Politico Focus is currently in the pitch stage of its first round of campaigns, and nothing they have created has yet been published, the overall trend toward native at the news outlet has increased. Cherukuri said that the number of campaigns has doubled year over year since 2013. They do not break their ad revenue out by native advertising.

“I want to experiment with what native can accomplish and how it can get audiences information that they value and how it can get brands access to the audiences that they want to reach,” said Losee.