Pitching media in the age of native advertising and sponsored content

Two weeks ago I did an article on how the traditional published news landscape is changing with the emergence of online only news providers. I looked at how the readership and growth of online was shifting the way earned media was accessed, in particular how it all relates to native advertising and “pay to play editorial.” I have had lots of engagement both online and off over this topic subsequently, with likely the most spirited debate in a closed Facebook group online involving past Georgia Straight employees (yes, I was one of those back in the late 80s) and current ones. For those of you outside the Vancouver area, the Georgia Straight is an urban weekly, one of the last independently owned media voices in North America, with rebel roots from its 60s origins. The Straight was always seen as upholding strong editorial and advertising divisions for sake of integrity, but has recently come under fire by some for having sold out to the branded content bandwagon. They used to pump out 80-100+ page papers weekly. Now they are putting out 32-36 pagers. Print is a tough industry with so much ad revenue moving online, so they’re adapting with the times, but admittedly their revenue is based primarily on the old model of a freely distributed printed product supported by advertising. They’re moving into digital content and creative ways to leverage native ads, but it’s a business model where they are playing catch up to new players like Daily Hive, with lean staffing and cost centers, and significant national reach. I love the Straight. Let’s hope they figure all this stuff out.

Before we move into this week’s content, if you happen to have missed the first part of this feature on native advertising, here’s a link to catch up on how it all works.

As promised, this week we’re going to a look at pitching stories for earned media into this new environment, and when native ads might be a good choice.

Earned publicity can be a great boost to your marketing efforts. The American Marketing Association estimates a multiplier of “x 4” for the value of earned media, meaning if a half page purchased ad cost you $2,000 an article written about you taking up the same half page size, would have a translated value of $8,000. The reason for it being so much higher is the perceived value of third party endorsement. Earned media becomes all the more coveted since traditionally it was genuinely earned – meaning you didn’t pay a cent for it.

The majority of editorial still falls into the traditional genuine earned media camp. However as printed newspapers and magazines have felt the squeeze from online digital advertising options, resulting in lost ad revenue, they have gone looking for new hybrid income streams. And as new digital only platforms such as Daily Hive, Huffington Post and Buzz Feed have gained huge readership, some platforms like Daily Hive have based their business model on revenue from native ads. Native advertising is essentially purchased editorial, where an advertisers message is wrapped in the voice of the publication. But it’s important to remember that in the midst of all this, there is still the need to pick up genuine news to cover – the freely earned stuff. It’s just that now when you’re pitching, you are more apt to be channeled over to the sales department if the idea doesn’t immediately grab the attention of the editor.

So how do you make your pitch stand out?

The basic fundamentals of what journalists are looking for still apply. I wrote at length about this in a past post, but here’s a quick summary:

1. Know a reporters expertise. Know what the writer (or publication) covers, and make sure the pitch is relevant to that reporter and their audience.

2. Make the reporter look good. Help them serve their audience. Media are also playing the ratings game, so they are obsessed with social media sharing and going viral. They want a story that readers will share online.

3. Send media a story they are hungry for. Tie your story to something relevant and timely. Frame the idea in a style the publication already uses. For example some media love to run lists, or “the top 3 things you need” to know type features.

4. Have a compelling subject line. Since most pitches will be by email and read on a mobile device first, keep it short and catchy. If the email never gets opened, the rest of the pitch doesn’t matter. That compelling subject line could well become a feature headline if it’s good enough to get the reporter thinking of your pitch from that perspective.

5. Keep the pitch short, simple and tight. Tell the reporter what’s in it for them and their audience up front. Respond to “Why is this relevant, and why now?”

But beyond these basic fundamentals, here are some further insights based on my interviews with Daily Hive and Buzz Feed.

1. The topic has to touch an emotion, be helpful or of heightened interest to the community. Whether it’s sorrow, empathy or humour, online only publication editors want content that will pull at the heartstrings or make readers laugh. They also want content that is helpful. Anything that increases knowledge or helps readers do something or solve a problem is appealing to them. Karm Sumai, CEO and Co-Founder of Daily Hive notes, “If someone is doing something in the community that is worth covering, we’ll cover it. Same goes for some cool community related events. Obviously we can’t cover them all but we aim to cover diverse events and people in the 18 to 45 year old demo. We get tips via email, social media and good old fashioned word of mouth.”

2. Content needs to be highly sharable. The business model for digital media is based on content being shared to grow the audience. This is where not only content and headlines are important, but arguably visuals are number one. If the pitch doesn’t lend itself to a highly sharable visual, it’s unlikely to be covered. The Daily Hive also notes that having connections to powerful influencers will influence articles covered 50% of the time. “For the other half we have great people within that are tastemakers that let the audience know what is going down in their city,” notes Sumai.

3. It has to be engaging. Their readers need to be able to identify with the story. It has to resonate and be highly relevant to them. This is where knowing the audience well comes into play. For example, platforms such as Daily Hive in Vancouver have heavy penetration with urban millennials. 69% are 18-34yrs old, and 70% view news on their mobile device. 78% of traffic to the platform comes in via social media. If your story isn’t of interest to that audience, it won’t be picked up. At the end of the day both Daily Hive and Buzz Feed admitted that companies they work with have to be highly relevant to their audience, or they won’t carry the story – in earned or paid form.

4. It has to be timely. Digital only publications are extremely timely. They are not encumbered by print deadlines, and can update stories on the fly. That’s why they will often break a story and later correct it as details come in, rather then work on verifying things excessively up front. So if your story can be framed from the perspective of something timely where they know people will be sharing about it, that will make it more appealing. For example, April 20th was “4/20” – a big day of marijuana advocacy, made all the more relevant this year by Canadian government legislation to legalize pot by 2018. We knew media would be covering that timely news, so stories tied to that were of greater interest.

Of course it might well be that after following all these guidelines, your pitch doesn’t get picked up. And that’s when it might be time to consider going the native ads, and paid content route. I think the key there is to allow the publication to drive how the message is presented since they know their readers best, and to steer away from the old “advertorial” approach with copy written (usually poorly) by the client, that was so bias and sales oriented, you could spot it a mile away. Let the publication suggest the headline and visual, and let them heavily guide the voice of the article. Sponsored content, done well should appear like genuine editorial to the untrained reader, touching on all the elements listed above that they look for in a good pitch, so it is appealing and will be shared. Notes Karm Sumai from the Daily Hive, “We can either go with what the client suggests if it fits like a glove with our audience or we take their suggestion and present options that are more in line with our readership. We aren’t always correct as it’s not an exact science. However, trial and error has allowed us to continually fine tune our advertorial process.” At the end of the day, if the blind perception of younger audiences is indifference, and the sponsored content could be four times more valuable, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity as an advertiser?

I’ll admit to needing to check some of my editorial purity values at the door as I adapt to this change of approach driven by native advertising and sponsored content. A generational shift is driving this. They’re leading change with new emerging media platforms and they view digital information as content rather then the church and state of editorial and advertising. They’re making lots of money with emerging media platforms, and new PR firms are flourishing under the updated model. It’s time to get with the program or retire.

Over to you! What’s your take on all this?



Mary Charleson

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