A fairly elaborate, nearly 1,500-word native ad for Netflix's original series "Orange is the New Black" appeared on The New York Times website Friday, using video, charts and audio to supplement text about female incarceration in the U.S.
It's among the first native ads from the Times' newly minted T Brand Studio, a nine-person team charged with creating content for brands.
"The way the projects tend to work is we collaborate with the brands, find storylines or plotlines that aren't inherent selling points but that readers will connect with," said Sebastian Tomich, VP-advertising at the Times and a co-architect of T Brand Studio.
"Orange is the New Black," for instance, is a show about one woman's experience in prison, and the show's second season became available on Netflix last weekend. While the Times' paid post never explicitly tells readers to watch the show, it does delve deeply into the topic of women in prison. Piper Kerman, author of the book the show is based upon, is featured in the paid post.
Mr. Tomich spoke with Ad Age on Thursday, prior to the Netflix ad appearing on the site and did not refer specifically to the campaign. On Friday, a spokeswoman for the Times declined to say how much Netflix paid for the campaign. Netflix did not respond to an email from Ad Age by press time.
An image and headline for the "Orange is the New Black" paid post appeared on the Times homepage Friday, among editorial links to an article about a town's fight against pollution, an op-ed about the Frick Collection and a travel story about Bolinas, Calif.
Last month, Netflix ran a similarly ambitious sponsored post on Wired magazine's site that drew comparisons to "Snow Fall," the Times' lavishly designed interactive news story about a deadly avalanche. Together they seem to signal an escalation in the effort and production values being devoted to marketers' branded content.
Native ads, which seek to mimic the editorial content surrounding it, are an important piece of the Times' digital revenue strategy. Under Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times' exec VP-advertising since last summer, the Times introduced its own native-ad product in January. The first advertisers using the product included Dell and Goldman Sachs.
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In the first quarter of this year, the Times broke a three-year losing streak of ad-sales declines, posting a 3.4% boost in ad revenue. Although Paid Posts had only just been introduced, and likely had little impact on the bottom line, Times CEO Mark Thompson made sure to note in an investors call in April that Paid Posts "launched successfully during the quarter."
Since the initial roll out, the Times has introduced Paid Posts to its mobile site as well as its mobile apps NYT Now and NYT Opinion. And this week saw a surge of new Paid Posts from Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, HP, American Express and Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
"The content has to be great," Mr. Tomich said. "It sits side by side with New York Times content." The Times newsroom is walled off from T Brand Studio, he added.
Native ads at the Times all carry labels indicating they are paid posts.
Mr. Tomich worked with Ms. Kopit Levien, with whom he previously worked at Forbes, to build T Brand Studio. T Brand studios is led by former Businessweek editor Adam Aston.
These days, creating rich content for or with brands is only part of the native-ad equation. The other part is distribution. Brands want reach: Who cares how great the storytelling is if no one reads it?
T Brand Studio has rolled out its own social accounts in an effort to build a following and extend the reach of the paid posts it's creating on behalf of brands.
But it's unclear how many consumers want to subscribe to feeds of advertorials from diverse advertisers. On Friday afternoon T Brand Studio's Twitter account had just 60 followers.
So far, the Times' newsroom has refrained from tweeting links to paid posts using its main editorial feeds, but Mr. Tomich indicated it's not completely off the table. "We wouldn't say we'd never distribute brand content through New York Times social feeds," he said.