What kind of impact can a local media organization create through development work on native articles, site transitions, and studying the effects of proper disclosure? The Texas Tribune took on these challenges with their Branded Content Project testing, and the initial results are impressive.
Background on the Branded Content Project:
The Branded Content Project, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project in partnership with Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium, has challenged the project alpha group to create large action plans and take giant leaps toward new revenue possibilities with branded content.
The seven teams have jumped into enormous initiatives and are seeing the first round of results come in with exciting success. Graham Media Group’s Taking Off initiative was our first feature; our second was The Dallas Morning News and their FWD > DFW initiative; our third was Shaw Media and their work toward improving reporting for advertisers; our fourth is WRAL’s multiple branded content initiatives and their efforts toward a re-branding campaign that will grow revenue, advertisers, awareness and help educate along the way; our fifth is Creative Lab @McClatchy’s use of events to educate advertisers and account executives; our sixth feature focuses on a uniquely branded event hosted by Localish.
The seventh, and final feature, shows the development work by the Texas Tribune and the background involved in moving their branded content articles to their main site, to grow their audience and their revenue.
As stated on their website, “The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.”
This unique local media organization focused on offering thought leaders a statewide forum to engage an audience with important policy issues, utilized branded content in a slightly different way than many of the other publishers participating in the Branded Content Project. Rodney Gibbs, chief product officer for the Texas Tribune, explained, “A few years ago we started experimenting with branded content on a small site separate from our main one. At the time, we thought we needed to segregate branded content from our primary site and its content. Over time, we grew more comfortable with branded content — its presentation, workflow, and solicitation — and we believe that our readers are more acclimated to it now as well. That’s why we’re now shuttering that separate site, TribTalk, and moving branded content onto our main site, where it will benefit from a much larger audience. The strongest elements of our program are its crisp design and proximity to our editorial content.”
There were multiple challenges with previous placements of the sponsored posts. The audience on their main Texas Tribune site was larger, so transitioning the branded content articles on the main site would immediately improve audience metrics. There was a concern about making sure Texas Tribune readers understood that some of these articles were paid content from an advertiser, whether read on the Tribune’s site or on third-party platforms. And the third concern was creating a sustainable workflow and SEO strategy that respected their editorial values. The team got to work with planning in late spring and begun the development work to solve all their challenges.
The timing of the branded content project and participating in the alpha group cohort was perfect. Gibbs explained “As we integrated branded content on our main site, we had several technical, design and business problems to solve. By collaborating with the alpha group and having the time and resources to test various approaches, we were able to craft a smart solution that’s beneficial to our customers and informative to our readers.”
As you can see with the screenshots below, the new templates beautifully showcase branded content clients while improving the experience for users. The Texas Tribune team has also added easy-to-find information for their audiences explaining the difference between sponsored posts and traditional advertising or editorial articles. By using the same content management system as their editorial team, they will now have the same story toolset which ads capabilities like video and slideshows while adding a few new capabilities for disclosing the author and the nature of the sponsorship.
A big upside to the transition will be audience growth but also revenue growth. Gibbs believes that the “transition to the main site will allow the Texas Tribune to increase pricing and add new advertisers plus create better user experiences.”
An important part of their process was running usability tests to determine the best disclosure language and placement to make sure users understood that these posts were sponsored. Emily Yount, user experience director for the Texas Tribune, conducted and planned the usability tests.
Yount explained, “Tests were conducted with a tool called Product Insight from usertesting.com. In each test, five panelists are given a series of tasks and their audio and screen are recorded as they complete them. The videos are incredibly helpful because the participants explain their answers to multiple-choice questions, giving context and nuance that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
They ran five tests in total, iterating the disclosure language and placement with each test. Below are a few things they learned along the way.
Participants had a strong desire to see a person’s name in the byline, not just the sponsor name. The inclusion of a person’s name increased their likelihood to consider the post trustworthy.
The sponsor description with the word “by” (instead of “about”) was the most helpful cue for participants, followed by “paid for and posted by.”
When the blue disclosure paragraph at the top of the post was visible by default, participants still didn’t read it and they were more likely to miss the “paid for and posted by” label.
Several participants noted their appreciation for our transparency about it being a paid post. They liked that it was mentioned multiple times, including at the top and at the bottom.
Interaction with the disclosure statement menu with the blue background improved slightly when the button changed from an info icon to text (“what is a paid post?”)
Once the Texas Tribune staff reviewed the results of the user testing, they took the information into development and after many varieties and versions of the articles, the disclosures selected and developed by the Texas Tribune team are below.
A few other considerations made by the Texas Tribune team included what would happen to sponsored content “out in the wild”. A person may see a branded content ad on the homepage, but they didn’t want those stories discovered by a search engine. And when shared on social media, they wanted to ensure paid content was not confused with the Tribune’s editorial content.
For the native ads units, they wanted each unit:
Trafficked through Google Ad Manager in order to use their templating system, have complete control of the creative, and consolidate sponsor content and display advertising metrics in one place.
Fluid so the ads would fit anywhere
For Social and Search they built the articles under the following rules:
Prefix titles with “(Paid)…”
No index, no follow links so the article wouldn’t be found in search results
WHAT WERE THE RESULTS?
We talked to April Hinkle, chief revenue officer for the Texas Tribune, about initial results in the first few weeks.
“Starting in October, we transitioned the posts from an independent site, tribtalk.org, to texastribune.org, building them with our CMS which offers greater capabilities, and have promoted them via native ads on the site’s homepage, story pages and on Tribune emails. It’s early, first 60 days of the change so we have limited data but the standout metric to date is reading time per post.”
TribTalk 2019 average time spent per post: 3:08
Sponsor Content November/December average time spent per post: 7:41.
Hinkle also reports that they have doubled their advertisers and revenue from 2018 to 2019. The team sees growth opportunities with branded content in 2020 with their newly developed story templates.
What’s next for the team at Texas Tribune? They will be rolling out new opportunities to advertisers that showcase their sponsored posts on the new site. The team is also considering a move into creating elements for their advertisers, specifically video.
Texan Since is a current social media campaign that allows users to tell their #texansince history and how and when they became a Texas resident. This strategy will also work well for businesses in Texas. They will have the opportunity to share when the opened their Texas-based business and participate in video and social campaigns around the #texansince brand.
Hinkle sees sponsored and branded content growing for the Texas Tribune, and they will continue to provide new opportunities for sponsors to align with their mission, “The Texas Tribune is all in on sponsor, branded content as it offers our sponsors a large space to communicate their stories to our audience. It’s important, engaging, interactive, and an opportunity to complete a custom, comprehensive campaign. As we continue to learn how best to create, publish, share, and measure the success of these posts, we’ll continue to contribute to this progressive conversation.”
We will continue to document and share the Texas Tribune’s progress with their initiative and the results from all our alpha partners at sellbranded.com.