by Gretchen Tibbits, Op-Ed Contributor, September 16, 2016
Reactions to the phrase “branded content” today span a spectrum from “the only way to reach an audience” to “a thinly veiled attack on what’s left of journalism.” While there is an element of truth to both statements, I think we can all agree that they are both a bit extreme. Branded content is a significant growth opportunity for established media publishers and startups alike, and it’s here to stay — so what’s the best way to approach it?
Today publishers are facing challenges in building, retaining, and monetizing their audience. External factors (all meriting a discussion in more detail in future columns) such as the rise of ad blocking, an increasingly crowded publishing environment, and the opportunity/threat posed by distributing content on platforms like Facebook are putting a strain on publishers.
Perhaps the biggest monetization challenge for any publisher who has been at scale for more than two years is the transition of more and more traditional banner advertising inventory to programmatic options. Significant infrastructure has been built centered around salespeople who are experts at selling the traditional banner ad, yet these publishers are finding that revenue stream declining rapidly.
For branded content to become a viable component of a publisher’s monetization strategy, there are a number of changes to existing systems, processes, and, sometimes, teams that have to be put in place. This needs to be coupled with the caveat that branded content only works when it is authentic and transparent.
Exactly what does that mean?
Branded content has to resonate with the audience. It needs to “feel” like the editorial content of the publisher, having a similar tone and visual language. Some publishers shy away from having integrated content teams, but I find the traditional “church and state” separation to be outdated. Your editorial team members are your experts on who the audience is, what information they expect from your content, and the tone and style in which they want it delivered. They should be your best asset in communicating the goals of the advertiser to the audience.
The audience should know when content is sponsored. While in decline today, soap operas “brought to you by” Proctor & Gamble were a staple of daytime TV for years. Audiences are also comfortable consuming sponsored content today, as demonstrated by the Super Bowl halftime show.
Unfortunately, in the recent past were a lot of bad actors among digital publishers. Today the Federal Trade Commission, IAB, Facebook, and others are bringing more regulations into this aspect, so proper disclosures are being mandated.
This transparency doesn’t need to diminish the value or popularity of the content, as is proven by the fact that ads with great storytelling go viral on a regular basis. Ariel India’s (a Proctor & Gamble company) recent two-minute #ShareTheLoad spot had such a clear, powerful message that it was famously shared by Sheryl Sandberg and garnered millions of views and shares.
Content Creation: Challenges frequently arise when balancing editorial vision and standards with a brand’s sensibilities and ideas, all while working to satisfy multiple internal and external stakeholders. Typically, writers and editors are focused on creating quality content that the audience responds to, and publishers have systems in place to track quantity of content produced and page views received.
In the case of branded content, the reporting on audience response is more detailed and more scrutinized. Putting even more pressure on the creative team is the fact that they are not only trying to please their readers, but they also must incorporate the vision of the brand into the content being created. For a single campaign, content creators may be balancing the perspectives of the salesperson, the agency, a public relations firm, and the brand manager. We all know the phrase “the customer is always right,” but that has to be balanced with an understanding of what will succeed. Successful branded content creators have mastered this give-and-take.
Sales and Account Management: The sale, execution, and post-sale reporting of branded content is quite different from the sale of a banner advertisement. The sale isn’t done when the insertion order is received. This is a high-touch endeavor, with the salesperson and/or account manager having to work with the agency, a public relations firm, or the brand manager (or sometimes representatives from all three) each step of the way.
For maximum success, they will also be managing internal communications with the content team to make sure all aspects of the branded content execution go as smoothly as possible. Finally, reporting post-sale usually goes well beyond impressions, encompassing comments, likes, shares, completed video views, and more.
This all might sound daunting, but the effort is well worth the revenue upside potential. Internally, processes will need to be modified to facilitate input from multiple stakeholders, and timelines, from insertion order to launch, will need to be extended. Team members must have project management skills and the ability to build consensus prior to branded content execution. Each piece of content should be properly tagged so the audience is aware of the sponsorship. But beyond that labeling, it should give the audience a similar experience as the core editorial content in both visuals and tone.
If you build strong internal processes and focus on authenticity and transparency in branded content creation, your audience will respond as well as they do to your editorial content.