30 Minutes With Melanie Deziel


This week, Branded Content Consultant and Speaker Melanie Deziel shares her thoughts on the future of native advertising, brands that are doing it right and where she finds inspiration.

Deziel first put her background in journalism and storytelling to use as content strategist at Huffington Post where she helped build HuffPost Partner Studio. She was the first Editor of Branded Content for the New York Times where she helped construct T Brand Studio and  worked at Time Inc. as Director of Creative Strategy, producing some award winning work along the way.

She now works directly with publishers and brands who are starting and growing branded content themes, and has been hitting the conference circuit to help teach tools and tactics of journalism to marketers, raising the bar on brand storytelling.


Can you talk about how the native advertising scene has changed and grown since you first got started?

Melanie Deziel: When I first started out at Huffington Post, it was just as the term native advertising was rising in the public discussion or in the media world. Obviously brand storytelling has been around for more than 100 years, it's certainly not new for brands to use stories to reach their audience, but as a media industry we were just starting to understand the power and potential of this kind of program from a revenue standpoint.

Our primary task as HuffPost Partner Studios in the early days was to look at every sales opportunity that came in, every request for proposal that we got from an agency, to try to figure out how can we help this brand speak to HuffPost readers and viewers in a way that fits naturally with our platform. We were coming up with tons of brand blog ideas of slideshows, lists, videos and infographic ideas to figure out what would make the most sense. We tried to figure out where [on the site] they belonged and what kinds of stories would be of interest to our readers, but also help serve their marketing goals as well.


I follow your newsletter The Overlap League, can you tell me how that came about and why you decided to start it?

MD: The Overlap League is almost two years old now, which is crazy to me. Back when I was at Time Inc., I was already doing a fair amount of public speaking and going to conferences. I’m on the board of the Native Ad Institute, so I was getting outreach from a lot of different folks asking me for advice. I realized that folks were looking to me to help curate their experience, to help find reliable resources, good examples and open jobs. We only have so many hours in the day, it’s not a super efficient use of time to be individually doing all of this, although I still do when necessary.I thought it would probably be easier for me and more beneficial for everyone if I could curate some of these answers in a regular newsletter and share some news that people probably want to see that they may have missed.

Essentially the newsletter was born out of the necessity of wanting to help inform and share my experience and my background with other folks who could benefit from that. To me, the value is really if all of us are better informed, if all of us are up on the news and the legalities and everything, and we’re seeing the same great examples of content done right, then we can all continue to improve as an industry and collectively help raise the bar on what good brand storytelling can be.


I saw an interview of yours where you described native advertising as any form of advertising that organically fits into the environment in context in which it’s presented. You cite the example that what is native for the New York Times would be totally different than what is native for Spotify.

Could you give me examples of publications or platforms that have found ways to incorporate native advertising that was surprising or really innovative?

MD: I think Spotify is a great example, I’m glad you mentioned that. I think one of the things, as background, that levels that is for a long time there were only so many ways to consume media. You listened to the radio, you watched TV you read a print publication, and the forms of advertising we had were similarly limited. Now that we consume content in so many different environments and through so many different formats and platforms and mediums, the possibilities are really endless. [Spotify] distributes media to all of us, and so what’s native for them is a branded playlist, or a playlist that’s collected around the seams. It’s a creative challenge to figure out what’s most organic and that’s why I’m always reminding folks that native is an adjective. It’s like a plant is native to a region, or a person is native to a place. That’s what’s organic, what’s natural and right for that context.

That’s why we see such diversity in what native advertising is on all these different media companies, whether you see a company like Slate, which has excelled into podcasts and audio on the editorial side. It makes sense that they would be producing branded podcasts. That’s not something that the New York Times or BuzzFeed, for example, has laid into. Whereas you see someone like BuzzFeed really killing it with the quizzes, lists and the animated videos.

I think what’s most important if you’re a publication or even if you’re a brand is [asking yourself]  ‘What do we do best on the editorial side when there’s no sponsor around and we’re not promoting something? What is it that we do? Why do people come to us? What’s the value that we deliver and how do we create a branded version of that so that the experience for our readers is the same?’ Readers are still getting the same value, they’re still having the same user experience on your site or in your app or whatever that may be, but you’re able to put a branded message in that context in a way that’s not interruptive, it’s not disruptive to the experience but hopefully provide value just in a slightly different way.


Another thing you touched on in that interview was budget and having to downsize an idea when your budget ends up being lower than originally planned.

Do you have any tactics or strategies for finding ways to still deliver cool content for your target audience?

MD: I saw a stat, I believe it was from the Knights Foundation, that said said 51% of local news publications and news websites now offer native advertising or a sponsored post in some form or another. This absolutely can be done at a local level with a local audience or your small business or local budget. Don’t be intimidated by these huge programs, it’s sort of like people don’t have that conversation about commercials. People don’t see a huge epic commercial from Geico with celebrities in it and you don’t think God I could never make a commercial. You just think, ‘Well, what kind of commercial can I make in my local market with my budget?’  Maybe I don’t have an NFL player, maybe I have a local celebrity or no celebrity at all. It’s just a matter of thinking what fits in your market and with your budget and usually dialing down the interactivity and the scale of how you distribute it is a good way to get in touch with your fans through your budget.

You can always go with a more static format. Is there a less interactive way to create that story? If you were thinking initially about a video and you don’t have the budget for that, maybe a photo slideshow would achieve the same effect and show the things you want to show, but do it in a slightly less revenue or resource intensive way. The same thing can be said for text. There’s still a lot of value in a Q&A, a blog post, a written article or how to instructional post, and most of us have the capability to create a text post even from our phone if we had to.


With all new technologies and innovations for platforms coming out all the time, what is exciting you about the future of the native advertising medium?

MD:  As we find these new formats that are really successful from an editorial perspective, things like VR, AR, messenger bots, mobile apps, it becomes a really exciting conversation about how to fit brands into those experiences in a native way.

Seeing how Spotify, for example has figured out what music streaming native advertising looks like is a good sign for as we start to explore VR, AR and some of these other formats. I was just reading an article about how Google has tried to figure out what does native look like in a VR environment. They’re looking at experiences where you’re in the VR environment, you have your headset on, you’re looking in a specific direction and if you stare at it for long enough, it’ll pop up and give you the option to go into a branded VR experience. That’s exciting to me too, saying this isn't like a pop up you would see on a website in the early days of digital advertising, but trying to find a way to be additive to the experience.


I’d love to hear more about what you’re reading, listening to and how you get inspired. Can you please talk about where you find your creativity? 

MD: One of the things that I’m a big proponent of is looking outside of your area of expertise. I think one of the things that is easy to fall into is you become an expert on a certain topic and you only consume content around that topic. Whatever your passion is or your business or your industry, you’re reading every book, listening to every podcast and you’re sort of all in but you’re also not getting feedback on other topics. So for me, I like to read and listen to podcasts about really diverse things that are maybe not directly related to content or marketing or business to try to see how that could influence.

Personally, I’m really interested in psychology and sociology and the way that we interact with other people, our motivations for things, the drivers behind the habits that we have and the actions we take. While it’s not on a marketing topic, you can learn a lot about your consumers and the way they behave. Lately I've been looking into sports a little bit. I’m not a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination, but starting to think about the way that fan loyalty is created, why we’re loyal to a certain team or a certain athlete, and we wear that pride on our bodies with tattoos and t-shirts and all of that. It’s an interesting thing that is outside the world of marketing, but learning more about it really can inform the way that you do your job.

My topics change, I’ve had really weird periods of time where I’m really into crafting or archery or plumbing and electrical. You can learn really interesting tidbits from other industries and kind of find ways to bring them back together. I always say it’s interesting to step outside of your comfort zone and learn about something you might not otherwise had any interest in because you can find those weird little overlaps between what you’re studying and what another industry might be doing.


Note: This interview was edited for clarity.


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