4 lessons panel-based events give native advertising

Just over a decade ago I was editing a business technology publication aimed at chief information officers (CIOs) when our publisher bought an events business.

One thing bothered me. There was an assumption that we would run panels and put together conference programmes where companies would pay to have a say. In fact, that was a large part of the business model. It didn’t feel right. It would be cats sleeping with dogs.

Why is that relevant now? Native advertising relies heavily on a very similar dynamic. Companies – often those critically covered by a publication’s editorial team – are the next moment sitting side by side with independent sources and journalists creating content.

But I think some of the fear is similarly unfounded. Let me explain how things panned out and some key lessons.

  1. Most of my team never got to speak to the event sponsors. Sure, my guys would give keynotes, create supporting content and even share a stage (though usually to quiz everyone evenly). As the senior editorial team member, I sometimes discussed the playing field with these paying clients and we had one other person whose role was to handle these relationships. Lesson: Top native advertising set-ups today such as BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post talk about their content teams that work with clients. But these are usually staffers who don’t produce the day-to-day copy. Walls still exist.
  1. Sponsors shouldn’t unbalance a panel. Getting the balance of regular panellists to sponsors right is a must. There are nuances to this but sometimes it was about rejecting the flat-out inappropriate requests such as a marketing director presenting a standard PowerPoint deck halfway through a debate or more than one exec from a sponsor appearing. Lesson: Any kind of native content – whether articles in an editorial stream or a sponsor’s speakers at an event – should be both sign-posted and in proportion to the overall aims.
  1. Seek out the best examples in your industry. Over time, we found out some of the most successful business media brands had long been working this way – in fact some were about to double down on this kind of line of business, something we’ve seen in the past decade. The last few years have seen events businesses often proving more successful than advertising and subscriptions. Lesson: Benchmark how you operate against other providers.
  1. Sponsors chose how they spoke just as carefully as they chose who would be on stage. For some, especially smaller or medium-sized players, we usually got a CEO. But for larger companies we’d stress someone who could contribute substance, such as an engineering lead rather than a pure marketing or sales person. Whoever we had, the most important thing was that they didn’t use their time to sell. In fact this proved easier than in written content – when you see an audience turn off or walk out because you’re talking about yourself, you tend to gravitate towards real, useful conversations in front of them. Lesson: This is rule number one for all content marketing, including native advertising and events: Don’t talk about yourself. First, be useful.

The bottom line lesson from events, which I believe applies just as much to native and other types of content marketing now, is that how you integrate sponsor messages with what you do is the key thing. To come to any conclusion that misses that or dismisses involvement by a sponsor entirely is probably unworkable for most events or media companies. Though that mindset would possibly make me feel 10 years younger.

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Need to know about events? Buy the e-book, Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events, by Collective Content (UK) founder Tony Hallett

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