Native Ads at a Mecca for Millennials: Wattpad’s ‘Brand Stories’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Invisible lines of connection’ are bonding together a vast, mobile community at Wattpad—and the advertisers who covet that demographic. Content Head Ashleigh Gardner speaks at London Book Fair’s Quantum Conference in April.
Image - iStockphoto: BigLike

Image – iStockphoto: BigLike

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘A Shift of Content Creation and Consumption’
Have you heard that that nobody’s making money at Wattpad? Yeah, no, that’s not true. Brand StoriesLast year, says Head of Content Ashleigh Gardner, the site paid out more than $1 million to writers on the platform.

“And this year, we have even more branded work going on,” she says, “so I’m confident that one-million-dollar figure will go up. Whether it’s a book or perfume or candy or a film,” she says, Wattpad has become a place for brands to have their stories told by Wattpadders to Wattpadders. And advertisers are being creative with their approaches.

London Book Fair Conference Manager Orna O’Brien has tapped Gardner to speak on April 11 at the newly renamed Quantum Conference (#Quantum16, formerly Publishing for Digital Minds).

Ashleigh Gardner

Ashleigh Gardner

In her session, Gardner—among the most informative presenters on the conference circuit today—will stand as the emissary of an intriguing new powerhouse to be reckoned with in terms of readership engagement and commercial mobilization. Aissetou Ngom of Penguin Random House moderates the session. Gardner and Ngom are joined by Irish author Deirdre Sullivan and by Saara Tiuraniemi of Finland’s Tammi. The discussion is titled “Young Adult Publishing: The New Frontier.”

And when it comes to a “new frontier” of YA publishing, Allen Lau’s Wattpad has blazed more trails than most. Recent figures cite 40 million unique users of the platform—both writers and readers, the readers far outnumbering the writers. Some 13 billion (yes, billion) minutes per month are spent on Wattpad by that army of users, with more than 150 million story uploads so far. Fifty languages are supported. Ninety percent (yes, 90 percent) of all Wattpaddery is happening on mobile.

Several patterns of monetization have been in play in the last year.

There’s the example of Anna Todd, @Imaginator1D, the One Direction fan-fiction writer, now on her second Simon & Schuster multi-book contract.

In another story, we talked with Gardner about the runaway popularity of Wattpad in The Philippines and the film and television production based there on the platform’s stories.

And then, as was beginning to become more apparent last summer, there’s native advertising—writers on the platform paid to produce stories, usually in the serial format that Wattpad’s mostly millennial readers enjoy. Commercial brands are the clients here, paying to have a story created on a theme, or even to engage in product placement.

Suzanne Spence

Suzanne Spence

Bringing the trend into sharper focus, Wattpad last month announced the hiring of Suzanne Spence from Google where she was Head of Media Solutions, B2B, working in mobile monetization strategies, focusing on the Asian Pacific markets. Spence now leads Wattpad’s approach to corporate interests in its Brand Stories initiative, launched last July.

Today (February 26), Spence appears on a panel in New York City’s Social Media Week, Your Brand, Their Story: Exploring the Shift in Content Creation and Consumption.

The promotional copy for the session does a concise job of describing the Wattpad formulation of storytelling as native advertising this way:

Social Media Week“Entertainment, experience, and authentic engagement can transform brands in the eyes of fans. Today’s millennials are hungry for stories that are relevant to them. They don’t want to be sold to, they want to be active participants with a direct connection to their favorite brands. This year Wattpad introduced Brand Stories to do just that.

“The world’s top brands leverage the invisible lines of connection between influencers, fans, and brand on Wattpad to create an experience that drives engagement time and meaningful connections, not click-throughs.”

That’s an essential statement of how this works both for Wattpad and for fans. Keywords: Authentic, engagement, meaningful, connection.

That “shift in content creation and consumption” of this Wattpad-sponsored session with Spence recognizes what may well be a generational adjustment in how promotional content is seen and valued.

While earlier generations of consumers might see native advertising as sneaky or underhanded—the telling of a story for an advertiser’s purposes—the nation of Wattpad seems peopled with avid “engagement” enthusiasts. And Gardner’s offices know what to do with that energy.

‘Invisible Lines of Connection’

Here’s the skinny on how it works, per Wattpad’s material, italics and all

  1. Wattpad commissions influential writers to create original content for brands
    We connect brands with our most popular writers who are masters at social storytelling
  2. Wattpad drives fan engagement around the stories brands share
    Wehelp brands serialize their own stories on Wattpad. We’ll promote it to millions of young people and encourage their participation and engagement
  3. Wattpad helps brands attach themselves to some of the most viral stories on the Internet
    We help brands curate existing Wattpad content through sponsored Reading Lists
  4. Wattpad encourages young people to share stories about their favorite brands
    We encourage the Wattpad community to write and share stories about the brands they love
Rising ‘Wattpad Stars,’ One Named Sky
Rebecca Sky

Rebecca Sky

Food for the HeartThis is making sweet sense to advertisers. As the approach was heating up last summer, Adweek’s Christopher Heine looked at Canadian Wattpad writer Rebecca Sky’s work for AthenosFood for the Heart. “Sky,” Heine wrote, “publishes a new chapter each week in the tale of a young American woman in Greece—the home of feta cheese, of course.”

And for a clue to what makes one of these campaigns fly, notice how engaged Sky is with her following of some 51,000 readers. @RebeccaSky, as she’s handled, works with @ELatimer, @DistantDreamer, and @LDChrichton on the site as the #Wattpad4, producing a weekly #Wattpad4 chat, Mondays at 8 p.m. ET.

Authors of almost every stripe these days are encouraged by publishers, agents, editors and publicists to build “platform,” meaning a following, a standing, visibility with fans. At Wattpad, this is platform on the big platform: the more influential a writer becomes in the ways of Wattpad, the more likely a brand is to be interested in working with that writer.

Gardner’s pool of “Wattpad Stars,” as she calls them, are her go-to cadre of super-popular writers like Sky, some of them commissioned for more than one company’s branding exercise.

The ingredients that go into this kind of outreach to the Wattpad universe, Gardner says, have to do with the perfect-jeans fit that this social-networking platform can create between a sponsor’s messaging and a consumer base now approaching the size of Argentina’s population.

“And it started,” Gardner says, “as so many things here seem to do—with One Direction.” The boy band has 1.5 million stories about it (yes, million) on Wattpad.

Update: In a conversation on Twitter with a colleague, Gardner has pointed out that “getting” Wattpad if you’re new to it may be easier if you encounter it on the app rather than on the Web site. If you’ve seen only the site, she says, “you’ve only seen 10 percent of the iceberg. [The] app is how [the] majority of users experience Wattpad.” 

And she reminds us of this video the company has created to develop a narrative around the appeal of Wattpad to its fans:

One Direction Has Been Very, Very Good For Wattpad

“Back in the early days of Wattpad,” Gardner says, “we were commissioned to write ‘official One Direction fan fiction.'”

Fan-fiction purists will tell you that the only true fanfic is unofficial, of course, often a subversive running with the ball. But here was Sony coming to Wattpad’s social-writing platform to create fanfic by design. It was a hunch that paid off, as Gardner tells it:

WP ODOne Direction was becoming very popular on The X Factor [on ITV in the UK] but had very little traction in the US. Their first single and first video were about to come out, and they were looking for a way to target the US audience with awareness. This was before there was One Direction work on Wattpad, it was all Justin Bieber and Twilight. [The band’s people at Sony] thought Justin Bieber fans were a great audience to get in front of.

“And One Direction’s first video—for What Makes You Beautiful [736.3 million YouTube views so far, yes, million] was set on the beach. Each of the boys had their respective girlfriend with them. Sony hired a Wattpad writer [@LDChrichton] to write the official fan-fiction backstory for the music on the video. She got to see the video before anybody else, and she wrote a chapter for each boy about how he’d met the girl, posted it on Wattpad, and it was a huge success. Sony posted it on [the band’s] Facebook page and it drove all the UK fans to Wattpad.”

As the One Direction phenomenon snowballed—including ad campaign awards for this Wattpad-backstory-in-support-of-a music-video—it was obvious in Toronto that many brands could be leveraged on the fandom that thrives at Wattpad.

The Fault in Our Stars became the first major film to get this treatment. “That being a huge book” from John Green, “we already had lots of fan-fiction on the site about it. They hired some of our writers to write ‘stories of extraordinary love,’ sponsored by the film.”

A chat with Gardner becomes a remarkable litany of companies and campaigns, including:

WP CokeCadbury Daiy Milk’s Marvellous Creations’ selections of “stories we think the community will enjoy” because “chocolate and reading have always been great together.”

AT&T’s powerful “It Can Wait” campaign with writer Anna Todd’s (@Imaginator1D, 1,05,892 followers) Weeping Willow about the lethal insanity of driving and texting.

CW’s use of backstorying on Wattpad for The Passions of Santos, the book in Jane the Virgin, into a serial telenovela for the show’s second season last autumn.

Coca-Cola’s “Naughty or Nice” holiday missives revealing “what your favorite characters would say in a letter to Santa.”

And how focused is an advertiser’s approach to this teeming platform?

“Not only can we target people who are in a particular geography or user type,” Gardner says, “but we can target by what they’re reading. We can choose, say, readers who follow stories that have ouija boards, if we want them to see advertising for a given story.”

Some brands arrive with their own writers. But more frequently, it’s the Wattpad Stars you’re seeing in action.

This means that as Gardner, Spence, and their teams develop deeper ties with advertisers in “brand stories,” you’re also seeing some of the most adroit talents surface in a new dimension of publishing-as-networking. And they’re being paid for it.

“It’s not just entertainment,” Gardner says.

WP Coke banner

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.