SCMP’s Johnny Ng breaks down the power of story in breaking through a cluttered media landscape and how native advertising can help brands be more effective in engaging with consumers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly decimated advertising budgets worldwide. It certainly has for us at the South China Morning Post and continues to affect businesses that are over-reliant on traditional advertising as their main revenue source.

The appeal and effectiveness of advertising has been down-trending for years - in particular, digital advertising. With the rise of ad blocking, ad fraud, and a general disillusionment towards online ads, it has been increasingly difficult to cut through the noise of the internet to get through to consumers or delight them.

The importance of storytelling in today’s congested digital environment

Which is why we need to think about native advertising as a viable alternative to pure display advertising. According to research, native advertising as a format offers particularly high engagement and viewability for both branding and performance objectives. Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, brand safety is paramount and building trust with authentic purpose-driven messaging stands out as an effective way to convey one’s brand story.

The shifting routines in people’s lives because of prolonged lockdowns and people staying home have put news and content in the spotlight. Media consumption habits have changed dramatically and as a news organization, we have certainly seen a big spike in readership as with almost every major news publication around the world who are enjoying record traffic numbers and subscribers.

The impact of COVID-19 has generally been positive for native advertising with more engaged audiences via branded content and wider reach, especially across digital channels. Our custom content business, Morning Studio, has thrived during the pandemic and there were two projects that stood out because they were both tourism-related - an industry that was absolutely decimated worldwide.

Both the Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Singapore Tourism Board had a clear focus on strengthening their country’s brand image in the minds of audiences around the world during the pandemic. Their native advertising campaigns were geared towards recovery by instilling confidence, promoting positivity, and reviving the spirit of discovery.

And despite recently shelving what would have been the world’s first travel bubble between both countries, their efforts have launched effective content marketing campaigns that established clear narratives to experience their respective countries, even though quarantine-free travel was not possible.

The need to project optimism and confidence

We’ve observed that brands — especially government organisations — want to communicate optimism. We worked with Brand Hong Kong, an organisation specially set up to promote Hong Kong as “Asia's World City” on a four-part series we called “The World’s Lab” - aimed to showcase Hong Kong’s decisive and effective measures in combating COVID-19.

There was a need to project positivity both domestically and outside of Hong Kong with messages that project optimism especially for those who seek to invest. The campaign needed to demonstrate Hong Kong as a mature, vibrant economy with great potential in areas such as innovation and technology, financial services, business and legal services. It needed to promote the city as a great place to visit, live, work or study, with a rich cultural and creative scene. Hong Kong’s history of successfully battling SARS nearly two decades ago added a befitting sense of pride and confidence.

Not only was it important that the PR message be delivered authentically through native advertising, but it was also vital that it was published on platforms that the message was contextually relevant. Stories about how a city and its people, its businesses, and its collective spirit used innovation to tackle COVID-19 worked spectacularly well on a news platform.

These multimedia stories best showcase how native advertising can position a city in a positive light and showcased Hong Kong as not only a city of ‘doers’ but also a city of innovators.

Storytelling how recovery starts from within

For tourism to restart and recover, a big push is needed by the tourism boards to revive the travel industry. With travel suspended, much of these campaigns were geared towards domestic tourism and targeting local residents - but the same stories can also serve as an inspiration for the future when travel returns.

The Singapore Tourism Board produced ‘Singapore Stories’, a collaboration that funded content creators around the world to tell amazing stories of Singapore as a destination, a home that’s loved, and as a place where passions shine through.

A video series called “Persevering Preservations” put a spotlight on fighting for traditions rooted in Singapore’s culture and show how COVID-19 has spurred how Singapore was working hard together to preserve them. One video featured a rattan chair maker, another about the owners of a mama shop (family-run neighbourhood provision shops), and a group of Singapore foodies that saved the hawkers — all stories that demonstrated how strength and resilience, solidarity and unity led Singapore through adversity.

The series saw an exponential increase (between 16% to 160%) in video views as we released each episode, suggesting that our audience was lapping up the inspirational, narrative-driven stories.

A few months ago, the Hong Kong Tourism Board decided they wanted to inspire locals to explore their home city and remind them about what was great about Hong Kong, such as the great outdoors. Over 100 points of interest were proposed, and an e-book was produced with walking routes, and five videos featuring different personalities highlighting the major tourism pillars that make the city great (culture, shopping, dining). All of this was part of a content hub that also advertised holiday deals offered by local businesses.

The inspirational, narrative-led articles in the "Holiday at Home" series for the Hong Kong Tourism Board outperformed editorial articles of similar topics (lifestyle) by a significant 38%.

Native advertising charts a new path for a post-pandemic world

Native advertising — even during a pandemic — is an investment in brand communications that can inspire and generate positive long-term benefits.

These two travel and tourism campaigns provided a timely reminder about marketing during challenging times like the COVID19 pandemic with an eye to strengthening brand reputation before travel returns.

These case studies focused on a narrative that employed content marketing and storytelling vehicles to drive home values and aspirations that other marketing solutions may fall short in delivering impact. In the context of the events in 2020, inspirational, narrative-driven stories are what people want to consume today.

So keep storytelling. As the character, Tyrion Lannister famously said in the Game of Thrones series finale: “It is stories that unite us.”