Branded content has its detractors.
There are those who say there’s too much content these days and, with increasing demands on everyone’s time, why add to the clutter? Who’s going to read it? Absorb it? Who’s going to act on it? What value could it possibly provide?
There are those who question the vehicles through which branded content reaches its audiences: owned and paid media. Rather than charting one’s own path or riding on the margins of established conventional media, they ask, isn’t it always better to get that coveted third-party endorsement? Doesn’t that have more power and ring truer with the audience that brands are trying to reach?
And there are those who question the very ethics of branded content creators. Aren’t they misleading consumers with, for example, native advertising copy that, as the critics see it, masquerades as “real” editorial content? Isn’t this the antithesis of truth in advertising? Won’t it lead to an erosion of brand loyalty once the wool is pulled off the consumer’s eyes?
All these detractors make good points. But no revolution has ever taken place without resistance—and I’d suggest that the move toward branded content is no less than a revolution. It’s not a fad or a flash in the pan. While it will evolve further, adapting to changes in media options, technology developments, and consumer preferences, it’s not going away. Which means that you can’t ignore it. Instead, understand it, adapt to it, even embrace it. Here’s what I mean:
1. Too Much Content? Make sure you stand out. There isn’t just too much branded content. There’s too much content of all types, in all media, on all platforms, at all times of the day and night. But that’s not a reason to shrink away from meeting the demand for more. The trick is to create content that’s solid, valuable, informative, entertaining and targeted to the right audience. You know that audience. You know what its information needs are. You know how those needs dovetail with your message; and think message, more than product or service. Who’s better equipped than you to craft that content and make sure it reaches consumers who are—as studies have shown—eager to soak it up?
2. Charting Your Course Provides Control—and Consumers and Publishers Appreciate That: Third-party endorsements can be valuable, but they also come with strings attached: You can’t control the message or the environment in which you’re placed. And there’s a temporal quality to the endorsement: it’s up, it’s gone, it’s over. A well-orchestrated, multi-faceted, ongoing, strategic branded content campaign that uses a wide variety of channels builds audience, has staying power, and provides much greater impact. Provided the content is solid and valuable and you’re reaching the audience you need. And provided your audience knows it’s you behind the content. Which brings us to the next point:
3. Worried About Ethics? Transparency works for everyone. Last month, after several years of study—and lots of well-vocalized concern on the part of consumer advocates—the Federal Trade Commission issued a series of guidelines regulating the appearance of native advertising in digital media. And though these are guidelines, rather than regulations, the FTC made it clear that it was serious about enforcement, holding not only brands and publishers responsible for compliance, but also anyone else involved in the creation of the branded content. While these guidelines may have been greeted, initially, with some hand-wringing on the part of not only brands but also publishers—who have become accustomed to collecting revenue from a source that’s proven more viable than either print advertising or digital banner ads—in truth, the guidelines only crystallize what is current common practice. Most brands and publishers already are diligent about clearly labeling branded content, whether online or in print. And the reasons for that run deeper than concern about an FTC crackdown. Publishers don’t want to compromise their reputation for objectivity with their readers. Perhaps more important, brands want the credit for providing great content. And that approach is working. A study from The Content Council showed that about three-quarters of respondents said they understood brands providing branded content were selling something, but said it was fine, so long as the content was valuable—and two-thirds of respondents said they were more likely to be loyal to those brands specifically because they’d read the content. Perhaps ironically, a study of millennials showed that they trusted branded content more than conventional content because they understood the brands’ objectives in producing the content.
4. The Bottom Line: Branded content should become part of your strategic arsenal. You might approach it by creating an in-house brand newsroom or by working with a publication to develop a branded content strategy across their publications (perhaps created by its in-house content studio). You could create a content-based microsite and promote it through social media and targeted e-mail blasts. You could develop a native advertising campaign and release it programmatically. The point is, don’t think branded content is going away soon. It’s not. Don’t believe that consumers aren’t looking for great content produced on behalf of your brands. They are. So find your place in the growing branded content landscape and dig in deep. If you do it well, it’ll pay dividends.
CONTACT: Mike Winkleman is president of Leverage Media. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the January 11, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.