Digital Storytelling: Impactful content to cut through digital ad overkill

This was a sponsored post by South China Morning Post under the Master Report series.

We have all experienced it: getting our online browsing interrupted by those pesky pop-up ads.

It is also common knowledge that cookies and algorithms are used to manipulate us with targeted advertising. In came ad blockers, software and apps that readers can use to shield themselves from unwanted promotions. A report by London-based GlobalWebIndex, based on data collected in Q3 2016 from 51,125 internet users aged 16 to 64, shows that the ad-blocking trend is on the rise.

Its findings also point to Asia leading the way in ad-blocking on mobile devices, with the penetration rate reaching 36% compared with 15 to 23% in other regions.

For the media industry and advertisers, this is an important issue – especially when digitalisation of news consumption is coming of age. The South China Morning Post (SCMP), which has been a major source of Asian and international news since 1903, believes it has the solution for this challenge.

The big picture

Last year, the newspaper unveiled its new corporate branding and “digital first” strategy, which has positioned as the company’s premier product. The announcement was followed by new rollouts that aim to bring China to the world, such as news digest app Inkstone, social media-based lifestyle content channel Goldthread and technology news platform Abacus.

The digital-first policy is meant to facilitate its transformation from a Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper into an authoritative international news agency. The idea is to make the SCMP the go-to-platform for conversations about China, which is rising as a global power and leads Asia’s continued growth into the 21st century.

Already, analytics have indicated rapidly growing traffic from Southeast Asian, as well as the United States, which the company sees as its primary growth market. Global MAUs increased by more than 83 per cent over the 12 months from July 2017 to July 2018. International readership reached a new high for SCMP during the year, too, with more than 80 per cent of readers coming from outside of Hong Kong as of July 2018.

Another new dawn

This month, the SCMP is welcoming another newborn – Morning Studio. What this new unit does is team up with advertisers to produce stories that engage readers while meeting defined marketing objectives. In the industry, it is called branded content, and almost all major media companies in the world offer it. But there is not a standard formula to produce and distribute it.

While some media companies create a separate platform to host branded content, sometimes as paid posts, what the Morning Studio produces populates – just the same as all of its editorial content. Every branded story is clearly labelled as such and the sponsor is named.

Readers come first

Unlike advertorials, branded content by Morning Studio is produced the same way as an editorial story is put together. After communicating with the client about the message they want to get across, the studio team proposes story angles, presentation formats and a distribution strategy to meet the goal.

Production of the content must follow editorial guidelines and the house style in order to have the SCMP’s seal of approval. That means that the advertiser behind the content needs to let go of complete control and allow the Morning Studio team to exercise their judgment about how the narrative should be framed and presented.

The content has to be honest and presented with editorial integrity, with the “readers first” principle at its core. Advertisers understand the importance of this approach, as what they are paying for is not only an ad or content, but stories that readers will trust and consume with confidence.

The launch of Morning Studio coincides with the unveiling of the revamped, which is powered by artificial intelligence to facilitate more effective delivery of content to readers, based on each individual’s interests and needs.

The website’s enhanced functionality will enable the Morning Studio to offer 360-degree content creation and craft multimedia experiences for readers. The team will also make full use of the new SCMP platforms to ensure that every branded story has a unique tone and voice.

In the end, well-executed branded content draws attention to the advertiser or product associated with it, and readers benefit from having engaging and stimulating stories they can enjoy.

Let the data speak

Newspapers have long-published sponsored features in print. But in hard copy, there is no way to prove the effectiveness of the content.

With advancing technology, however, there are ways to track the success of an online story. We can see how many people are reading a story at a given time, how long they stay on a page and where they navigate to next. Digital publishing also allows the media company to respond in real-time. At SCMP, content performance is observed throughout the day on monitors placed around the office, and headlines are being modified from time to time to improve SEO. Often, just changing a few words can have an immediate and noticeable impact.

Let’s go social

Analytics generated by SCMP indicate that an increasing amount of traffic to has been driven by social media platforms.

According to figures cited in a report by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, titled “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2018”, Facebook accounts for 24% of traffic to news publishers.

Therefore, the publication of Morning Studio’s content is often complemented by a well-thought-out content marketing strategy, which involves eDM and social media. The SCMP has more than 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and the Morning Studio team leverages this asset to attract readers to its branded content. Based on the campaign, the content is also marketed on other platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

However, Morning Studio also has another ace up its sleeve. Many of its branded stories lead up to an offline event that serves as the finale of a campaign, and these different elements are strategically lined up to maximise the impact of the marketing message.

Economists are calling this era “the Asian Century”, and the SCMP is at the heart of it. As part of a news media company that is going global, Morning Studio aims to become the creative house of branded content that helps advertisers reach the most affluent audiences, not just in Hong Kong and Asia, but all over the world.

Read also:

The Master Report: Surviving the new era of digital news

Digital Storytelling: Case Study-How Morning Studio brings awareness to brands through tailored video and written content