Finding Washington D.C.’s Influencers Using Native Advertising

All Aboard NativeThe Association of American Railroads (AAR) is after the kind of Washington, D.C., influencers who can impact change. But with a limited budget and a potentially boring topic, the organization needed to find a way to tell people about the vital role freight trains play in the economy.

After "a difficult year for freight rail," during which the Department of Transportation filed suit against the AAR for allegedly not giving passenger trains priority over freight rail, the AAR needed to persuade D.C. policymakers about the vital role trains played in the economy, said Dianne Mikeska, account director for the AAR's agency, Home Front Communications. It decided the best way to educate and impact those influencers was through a native advertising campaign on The Washington Post's site.

The organization knew from its media audit and proprietary research that the AAR’s target audience read The Washington Post, said the AAR’s assistant VP, Kristin Smith, at an event for the Online Publishers Association (which rebranded just after the event as Digital Content Next).

The AAR also decided that having the articles appear in The Washington Post would give its campaign additional credibility and impact. “It was the appropriate editorial environment, and was read by politically active members living around D.C.,” Smith said.

The organization and Home Front Communications co-developed more than two dozen posts in June with titles like “The Railroad Jobs You Never Knew You Wanted” and “7 Of The Wildest Things Carried By Freight Rail.” It organized each week around a different storyline: the efficiency and capacity of network, commodities, safety and the workforce.

The Washington Post experimented with different ways to promote and position the railroad association’s content.

One particularly successful way was a 300x250 ad showing a piece of the infographic. Users could click through to view the whole post, and did so at above-average rates, showing that “when you combine traditional advertising with native placements, it increases traffic more than just with native placements,” said Kelly Andresen, director of advertising innovations and product strategy for the Post. They also tried embedding the content into the Post’s “Know More” section, where it was contextually relevant.

Both the Post and AAR used paid Outbrain placements to drive traffic. After each week’s posts were up, the railroads team would add paid Outbrain posts a week later, so the organization could tease apart the impact of organic reach and paid reach.

“Outbrain performed extremely well for us,” Smith said. “We did [a geotargeted] local D.C. Outbrain, and continued to promote it our for the past two months. It’s the power of The Washington Post brand through Outbrain that keeps people coming back.”

The results of the campaign exceeded its expectations. Since the AAR was aiming to reach just a small audience that could actually enact change, “really less than 600 people and their influencers,” Smith said, the campaign delivered on that and then some.

During the campaign, 1,480 hours were spent with our content. At the same time, people spent just 364 hours on The posts drove 31,885 unique visits, 40,000 page views and 2,000 social shares. Videos within the posts were viewed 633 times.

While Smith said that relatively few people clicked through to the organization’s website, those who did were highly engaged, spending three minutes and going four pages deep into the content, Smith said.

The campaign also provided useful takeaways for the future. Smith’s team learned that some headlines, like “No One More Capable And Committed,” were “too soft,” she said. Those pieces or titles could be switched out on Outbrain for a more compelling title that drove more traffic.

The team discovered that the articles were being shared on LinkedIn, so “we relaunched our LinkedIn page, because we saw so many LinkedIn shares,” Smith said.

Even after the campaign’s flight date, the content chugs on. The AAR continues to promote the posts using Outbrain. The Washington Post brand helps drive traffic much better than content that lives on the organization’s websites, validating its choice to place the association’s content within a site consumed and valued by D.C’s discerning policymakers. But the real test will likely come in December, when the AAR makes its case not through native advertising, but in the courtroom.


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