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Guardian Labs began in early 2014 with its aim to work with clients to create sponsored content opportunities.
This is a trend in publishing with BuzzFeed and The Telegraph (and more besides) experimenting with in-house content creation tailored for brands.
The Guardian is seeking to rise above some of the disquiet around native advertising (is it a case of the emperor's new clothes?) by simply creating transparent sponsored content to a great standard.
Anna Watkins, who heads up Guardian Labs, was speaking at the IAB's Content Conference and this is what I took from her talk.
For a full intro to native advertising see the new Econsultancy report, Native Advertising: What it means for brands and publishers.
Trust and transparency
Guardian Labs is all about open ideas.
It's about having readers sharing Guardian content, interacting both on and off its own platforms. The publisher aims to achieve the opposite of the paywalls operated by the likes of News UK. Inviting users in is a must.
Anna used a quote from Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, to position the debate.
The social revolution is a trust revolution.
The Guardian has, incidentally, been rated the most trusted newspaper, so there's a good start. And the paper's sphere of influence benefits directly from this trust inspired in users - not only does The Guardian have more than six million direct Twitter followers, for example, but it has 169k followers that themselves have more than 500 followers each. Trust can go a long way.
Maintaining this trust whilst allowing brands in on the act is the goal of Guardian Labs.
How to work with brands?
In this spirit of openness, Anna spoke of the need to work with brands to help them understand the balance between financial value and the value they bring to customers and to society.
In essence, the nature of digital means that brands have ceded control of communications to the customer and this highlights the need for trust and authenticity.
This point ties in with the need to establish appropriate metrics for an ad campaign. As Nick Bradley of Northern & Shell points out, journalists are somewhat beholden to the page view and advertisers to the click. What Guardian Labs is trying to work from is the idea of approaching a content partnership in the right way, ensuring authentic, discerning and transparent content can still be supported by an advertiser.
EE and Unilever
Here are two examples of partnerships established by Guardian Labs, effectively native advertising done right.
Unilever and the Live Better Challenge
This partnership involved a whole range of content, traditional editorial, challenges to readers, associated prizes and also lesson plans for schools. Crucially there are no direct brand references in the pieces, a core part of Guardian's approach to attaining authenticity in native advertising.
The goal is to associate Unilever with responsibility, something the brand is already aiming to achieve with Project Sunlight. Anna spoke of excellent results so far for Unilever from this Guardian partnership.
EE and Guardian Witness
Guardian Witness is a citizen journalist platform that's supported by EE. In many ways this is even more like a sponsorship opportunity in that the platform displays crowdsourced content, not brand-influenced editorial, and the brand association is much broader than even that in the Unilever example. EE simply understand that association with this open storytelling is a great thing for its brand.
Witness has been an incredible success, with a social reach of more than 40m and recently won Innovation of the Year at the UK Journalism Awards.
The future is transparency in measurement and message
Anna gave a tantalising glimpse into the next level for advertising and this kind of finely judged, brand associated content.
Ophan is an analytics dashboard used by the Labs team (in beta) that shows real-time readers and sharers and a whole tranche of analytics.
Ophan has been used in the example below of The Guardian's D-Day landing reveals, to show that although this story initially gained more traction on Twitter, once it was published on the Guardian’s official Facebook page, referrals from Facebook exploded with nearly a third of the interactive's page views being driven by Facebook. Another boost came from the Guardian’s Reddit community (in orange).
This system showed that two thirds of traffic for this piece came from outside of the UK and it had a strong uptake on mobile devices (42% of traffic).
Ophan is being rolled out to clients, so they are completely in the light when it comes to the direct impact of their advertising campaigns. An update to how DoubleClick works with OPHAN will also lead to more contextual and relevant advertising across the Guardian platform.
Watch this space as it seems The Guardian is aiming to set the standard when it comes to transparency and authenticity of content.