The following piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
Marketing professionals live for trends, and these days there’s one wave sweeping through the marketing departments of Corporate America: branded content. Marketers have discovered that customers want to hear from the companies they do business with in ways separate from advertising. It’s why Whole Foods Market has created a blog that provides recipes for a week’s worth of meals – which you might expect – but also how to keep honey bees healthy – which you probably wouldn’t. And it’s not just consumer-facing brands that are embracing the idea of developing excellent branded content, either. General Electric publishes a constant stream of stories and videos about such diverse topics as jet aircraft engines, malaria parasites, even Japanese lettuce farmers. These organizations are realizing that connecting with customers through smart, insightful, engaging content can create more new customers, more loyal existing customers or, in the best of all worlds, both.
Organizations have to produce all this good content – a skill that many of them just don’t have. A slew of companies, old guard media giants, specific content agencies, public relations firms, and traditional advertising agencies, are vying for this business. But before a company embarks on ramping up their branded content, they really need to have a strategy. Otherwise, the organization risks potentially wasting time and money creating content that doesn’t work … or worse. I’ve found that there are four principles for companies to embrace to create powerful content.
Determine how branded content supports business objectives
Companies cannot produce content just for content’s sake. Every blog post, tweet, white paper, video, or any other piece of content has to serve an underlying business objective. An organization has to know, in advance, what it wants its audience to do after consuming the content. Then, before pushing the content out, marketers have to ask whether the content has a chance of doing what it’s supposed to do. Some of that is big-picture stuff: Does the content make its audience want to learn more about the topic, read another piece of related content, or even call the company? The rest is tactical – is there a hyperlink readers can use to even get to another piece of content? Is there a call center set up to take phone calls if a customer wants to contact the company? These issues should be thought out before embarking on a branded content campaign.
Match brand and type of content
Red Bull, the energy drink, has built its brand around living life to the fullest. When people think Red Bull, they think parachuting into a canyon, doing loops in a plane, or staying out all night on a great adventure with friends (perhaps a more reasonable goal for many people). It’s not surprising that Red Bull’s content provides videos of people doing all those spectacular things. The tone of its content matches that brand voice: irreverent, thrill-seeking, fun. Indeed, it would sound ridiculous if Red Bull were to issue a 50-page calculus-filled white paper on the physics of parachute jumping. Organizations have spent countless dollars and time deciding what their brands stand for. Content that doesn’t match the brand potentially damages all that hard work. Branded content needs to be about satisfying your customers and reinforcing the values your brand stands for.
Assess the risk and reward
Producing branded content often isn’t financially expensive. It doesn’t take very long to think of, write, and send out a 140-character tweet. However, there can be costly consequences of putting out content that is off-message – or worse. In 2014, SpaghettiOs created an image of its smiling mascot (an anthropomorphic piece of pasta) holding an American flag. The image was posted on December 7 – Pearl Harbor Day – along with the sentence “Take a moment to remember with us.” More than 2,400 Americans were killed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. Campbell’s, the owner of the SpaghettiOs brand, issued an apology.
We apologize for our recent tweet in remembrance of Pearl Harbor Day. We meant to pay respect, not to offend.
— SpaghettiOs (@SpaghettiOs) December 7, 2013
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s puzzling what SpaghettiOs was trying to accomplish with the content. But even if there was a valid business objective, was the brand awareness worth the risk of offending people with an insensitive post?
Find the right talent to create content
Condé Nast, the publisher behind consumer magazines such as Vogue and The New Yorker, is trying to use its reputation of excellent journalism as leverage with organizations that want to produce branded content. The publisher is using journalists and other editorial producers from its consumer titles to produce branded content. To an organization interested in enhancing its branded content, that proposition might sound very attractive. I don’t believe a journalist can do both straight editorial and branded content – especially in the same industry vertical – because it puts a strain on readers who expect objective reporting from journalists. When a journalist adds branded content to the mix or work, there might be a cloud of doubt over non-branded work, as the most important audience (readers) may be questioning the unbiased integrity of the work.
But just because an organization shouldn’t tap a bylined journalist for their own content doesn’t mean it can’t find top-quality talent. Indeed, there’s a robust pool of excellent writers, editors, designers, camera operators and digital specialists who produce excellent work.
Branded content, much like social media, evolves and redefines itself everyday. But if companies keep these four guiding principles in mind, they will be on the way to successfully creating excellent branded content.