Grammar Lessons

Readers of Gawker Media’s rollicking sports site Deadspin found a different kind of post last week. Scrolling through the foibles of sports stars, they came across one detailing a new bacon cheeseburger from Wendy’s. The sponsored piece wasn’t penned by the brand or its agency, but by Gawker’s in-house ad copywriter, and it adhered to blog style rather than that of typical ad copy.

Gawker, Federated Media, Digg and others are lending a hand with brands looking to fit into their environments without being relegated to the sidelines with run-of-the-mill banner ads. The increased leeway these publishers have in crafting messages centers on the belief that they’ll resonate better than if an “outsider” — whether agency or brand — tried to do it on their own.

In many ways, the publishers are trying to pull off the same trick as magazines such as Vogue or Wired: making ads a seamless part of the content experience. The difference, publishers say, is that crafting a print ad that adheres to the style and tone of a magazine is easier for an agency to do than getting the vibe of a tight-knit community down.

“The tool set for marketers is beginning to look the same as publishers’,” said Pete Spande, svp of sales at FM, noting advertisers now need to create content people elect to consume rather than interrupt them. “That hasn’t been the case in advertising to this point.”

FM, which represents several well-known blogs and social media sites, dabbled in sponsored posts in recent years. When Virgin America, for instance, wanted to reach design-conscious consumers — by emphasizing the features that differentiate it from low-cost competitors like Southwest — FM crafted a sponsored post for Apartment Therapy in February. It extolled the soft lighting of Virgin planes and plush leather seats in the smart tone of other posts on the site.
“We’re having the brand speak to the community in a sponsored post,” said Spande. “Our team is helping the brand team [speak in a way] that’s appropriate to the tone and grammar of the site.”

The same rationale is deployed at Thrillist, a lifestyle e-mail publication for affluent young males. It crafts advertising e-mails for clients like Gillette and JetBlue. Agencies don’t have the right insight to the Thrillist audience, said Ben Lerer, the company’s CEO, but can direct the creative to stay true to the brand.

“Their brand equity is safe,” he said. “We [won’t] do anything they’re not comfortable with, but if they let us play around a bit, we can take a message that’s working and tweak it so it speaks directly to our guys.”

More often than not, the publisher, rather than the advertiser or agency, has a better idea of what will connect. HBO, for instance, contracted Gawker to write sponsored posts and a blog for its True Blood campaign because “they know the voice” as the audience is the same as the Web site’s, said Steve Wax, managing partner at marketing agency Campfire.

Additionally, agencies, hit hard by the recession, don’t have the personnel in many cases to craft messages for discrete communities. That means some publishers are hiring copywriters familiar with the style of the sites and immersed in the communities. As part of its Digg Ads — which appear in the same style as stories submitted to the social news site — Digg has staffers who rewrite headlines and deck copy for advertisers, in some cases creating it themselves.

“You now need to write headlines worth sharing,” said Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer at Digg. While some advertisers and agencies do well in this area, he noted, “other marketers are less familiar with the grammar of Digg.”