Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
7 mins read

The publisher’s guide to Branded Content

Branded Content Definition – What is it, and how are others doing it?

What is branded content? We define branded content as a form of marketing that assists brands in using paid media (note – it doesn’t have to include paid distribution) to use a storyteller’s expertise and to harness the trust, credibility, and values that have already been established with the storyteller’s audience. Branded content helps audiences connect with brands on an emotional level and is most commonly used to build brand awareness and increase brand loyalty. 

A branded content article will tell a story that adds value (informs, entertains, stirs an emotion) to the readers, and it may not even mention the product or brand in a prominent way. An excellent example can be found in The New York Times’ article about female inmates from 2014, which is still one of my favorite branded content pieces. A close inspection of this piece shows why this is not just great branded content, but why it’s simply great content. It doesn’t focus on Netflix’s service or on Orange Is The New Black’s plot, it starts a conversation about a relevant topic and increases awareness to the challenges that female prisoners in the U.S often face. For readers, the article adds value: teaching them something new about the correctional system and how it could be improved. It also makes use of mixed media and novel formats by incorporating audio snippets before the rise of the podcast — which goes to show how good the NYT is at telling a story in a compelling way. 

Why Branded Content?

So what are the advantages of branded content over other types of ads? Why should brands and publishers opt for branded content? 

On top of the multiple advantages listed in here and in other branded content overviews before it, just think of how branded content is different than conventional digital advertising which increasingly antagonizes users. Branded content seeks to attract them and make them want to know more about the brand. A well-executed campaign invokes emotions that will be associated with both the content creator and the brand, making it more memorable. If you need an example to the power stories hold, look no further than Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign that became a viral sensation.

Because they aim to engage with readers by finding common ground on shared values, branded content campaigns give advertisers the opportunity to tell a well-rounded story with real depth. There isn’t a need to use a “hard-sell” and interrupt the story. Traditional ads have just a few moments to catch a viewer’s attention before they pass the billboard, scroll past it on their feed, or go make some popcorn during the commercial break. Branded content operates in the opposite manner – the storytellers have the luxury of time and attention to build a narrative and to cultivate the relationship with the reader even further and tell a long story. They earned the readers’ attention in advance. 

The traditional way of advertising is focused on the product or brand and isn’t focused on the audience. It talks to people and doesn’t engage with people, and in that two-way communication is where great branded content lies. In other words, in order to spark joy, your content has to stir emotions with your readers and not just pitch them the latest vacuum.

 One terrific example for the reverence some content marketers approach their audience with can be found in the conversation we had with Nick Fortunato, Vice President, Custom Content and Head of Studio at The Knot WorldWide, as part of our interview series, The Storytellers. As Nick puts it, “People come to us with questions about important things, like ‘is this thing my baby is doing normal?’ and we’re able to help them figure things out. When you can do that, it’s sort of beyond advertising. It’s something that impacts people’s lives, and that’s pretty awesome.”

As one of the main advantages of branded content is its relevance to the audience, but how can that be judged and communicated? And how do you measure branded content’s effectiveness and show your success to your brand partner? 

To assess these questions, the first thing to examine is the values your company shares with the brand and the ideas it promotes. Would you be able to easily explain why your audiences would be interested in reading this content? A great branded story is one that would resonate with your readers regardless of the brand’s mention or lack thereof. Is it credible? Have you built the “license” to talk about the matter? It wouldn’t make sense for a celebrity news site to write about retirement funds all of a sudden.

If we’re to sum it up, just think of your audience when you write the piece and treat it as if it were any other journalistic article. Make sure that the article: 

  1. Impacts your brand and the advertiser in a positive way. 
  2. Is something your audiences would read organically. 
  3. Is relevant to what’s interesting to them. 

Audiences are often seen as a secondary consideration, but if you know your audience and write for them, it could lower your content distribution costs, further increase engagement with them, and have a generally positive effect for you.

Creating Branded Content

By now, we’ve established what is branded content and made a case for some of its benefits. Now that you’re considering adding it to your mix, but how do you go about creating it? We can offer some insights into that with a few pages from our partners. 

According to Meghavaty Garibaldi, Director of Consumer Strategy at The Guardian US, the first step is to understand your partner’s KPIs and goals. Why have they set them? What will prove your content’s success? Our partners agree that while there isn’t one metric to look at, some of the most common KPIs are: reach, on-site engagement, social engagement sentiment. These metrics are used to measure awareness and engagement as a whole, which are benchmarks across the industry. Only after you know the answers to these questions can you build your content strategy and then produce your content. It might be that your partner’s KPIs will be better served with audio content or that you’ll find that video would be the perfect tool to tell their tale despite the high investment it requires. 

  • The next step is to pitch and convince your partner to choose you and your content. Two tips we learned from our partners are: 
  1. Leverage data. Monica Hare, Head of Gear Patrol Studios, supports the idea of “storytelling through data.” When Monica and her team are pitching ideas, they back up their creativity with data about human behavior, for example, or specifics about their audience that they help the brand reach. On top of that, Monica advocates for strong teamwork and communication between teams, as her team relies on Gear Patrol’s editorial teams to an extent.
  2. Communicate early. Nick Fortunato also advocates for better communication, although he takes it further. Nick has led the restructuring of The Knot WorldWide’s teams and brought together the people who are pitching ideas with the people who are going to make the ideas happen. By doing so, Nick believes that he avoids overpromising.

Once you have a better understanding of what your partner is expecting and the story you want to tell, you can go about creating it. It’s important to remember that branded content is content first and branded second. Put another way: You have to focus on the storytelling and remember to put your audience in the center – if your audiences won’t want to read your content, you will not meet your goals regardless of how well you executed your idea. For this reason, Lars Bengston, Head of Branded Content at Thrive Global, says that the Thrive team doesn’t create content for Instagram, or for Facebook, or for any specific platform. It’s the content that dictates the form and the platform that it will be distributed on. 

The fourth step is to distribute your content to qualified audiences who’ll indeed be interested in consuming it. Whether it’s by using influencers as The Knot does, utilizing native units and homepage callouts on your site like The Guardian US, or employing services such as Keywee’s for smart content distribution, it’s important to regularly check campaigns to ensure you’re tracking correctly toward your KPIs. 

After the campaign is concluded, it’s time to share the success with your partner. Throughout the campaign you should manage expectations and report successes so that at the finish line they will be excited about the results and additional insights you can share with them. The momentum should be used to build a long-term partnership.

If you keep all of this in mind when creating branded content, you should be well on your way to build meaningful and successful relationships with your readers and your brand partners. 

Remember to talk with your audience and not to them, pick partners with mutual values, and communicate with your partners throughout the campaign.

Assaf Medicks-Wecksler, Keywee

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