Salmon: The Many Flavors of Native Content

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NEW YORK ( Reuters Blogs ) -- A story about smartphone use in emerging markets appeared on Quartz Wednesday morning. The byline at the top is that of Donald Fitzmaurice, the CEO of Brandtone, who wrote the introduction and the conclusion. The rest of the piece comprises short country reports from Brandtone employees in South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Turkey. The ostensible message of the piece is about smartphones. The real message of the piece is: "Hey, look at us, you might not have heard of us, but we're thought leaders in the mobile space, and we're in lots of different countries around the world."

Quartz has a substantial amount of "sponsor content" on the site (see this, for instance), all of which comes with a disclaimer at the bottom saying something like "This article is written by Chevron and not by the Quartz editorial staff." The Brandtone piece is not sponsor content: It was solicited by Quartz editors, not Quartz sales staff, and is pure editorial content, promoted on Twitter as such. But at the same time it's exactly what the sales staff would like Quartz's sponsor content to be: a "native" way of reaching readers -- something that reads like a Quartz news story -- which also improves the reputation of the company responsible for publishing it.

There's nothing particularly innovative here. Op-ed pages have long relied on contributed content, much of which can be excellent. Still, it's worth looking at who's getting the most value out of deals like this, where Quartz gets smart (and free) copy, while the outside contributor gets exposure and validation. It turns out that this is a pretty lopsided trade, where the value to Brandtone is actually much higher than the value to Quartz.

Quartz, in this deal, is getting one article, which needs a fair amount of editing; it's a tiny proportion of Quartz's daily output. Meanwhile, Brandtone is getting something very valuable indeed. Just look at the U.S. flack-to-hack ratio: It's approaching 9-to-1, according to the The Economist , which means that for every professional journalist, there are nine people, some of them extremely well paid, trying to persuade that journalist to publish something about a certain company. That wouldn't be the case if those articles weren't worth serious money to the companies in question.

How valuable? How about somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million? That's the amount of money that Fortune's ad-sales team was asking, earlier this month, for a new product called Fortune Trusted Original Content, as Adweek outlines:

"Similar to licensed editorial content, TOC involves creating original, Fortune-branded editorial content (articles, video, newsletters) exclusively for marketers to distribute on their own platforms."

After news of the TOC program appeared, it was walked back -- abolished, essentially. You can see why Fortune's top editorial brass would be uncomfortable with the idea that Fortune editorial content could be commissioned by, and appear for the sole benefit of, advertisers. So now they're going back to the old model, of just allowing advertisers to license (reprint, basically) stories which were independently commissioned and published by Fortune's editors.