The rapid rise of Internet video in both “native digital” (YouTube, Vimeo) and traditional “show” forms (Netflix, Hulu), combined with the explosion of Internet-based marketing in general, has destabilized the traditional world of advertising. This is not new news.
What is still interesting is how long the transition is taking for the advertising industry and professional marketers.
At VidCon 2014 - the world’s largest gathering of video content creators, fans and industry types (I’m here in Anaheim in both capacities, as the dad of two ‘Tubers and as a marketing strategist) – industry leaders are diving in to what to make of this new platform. There is pressure for YouTube and other platforms to fall in line with traditional standards such as the :30 or :15 pre-roll ad type, yet innovative creators resist outsiders mucking up their creative freedom with such outdated constraints.
One area of excitement and consternation is “branded content.” Various definitions apply, but I like this one from Forrester Research: “Content that is developed or curated by a brand to provide added consumer value such as entertainment or education. It is designed to build brand consideration and affinity, not sell a product or service. It is not a paid ad, sponsorship, or product placement.”
Another research tidbit from Forrester helps explain why branded content is growing in popularity with major advertisers: Only 3% of consumers describe claims made in ads as “very accurate." Consumers have been trained to be highly cynical, and straight ahead advertising is among the most mistrusted forms of communication. Yet companies still spend billions upon billions churning it out.
There are two primary methods for creating branded content. One is to allow a trusted independent content creator to take your brand and run with it, essentially introducing it to their audience with very little control from you. The second is for you to become a content creator yourself. Both methods have their own challenges.
The key for both methods is to deliver value to the audience that is inherently independent of the brand, yet weave the brand into the content in relevant, meaningful ways. Yes, there are often logo and product placements throughout, but the point of the content isn’t to sell overtly. Instead, content is intended to entertain or educate the viewer on a topic they care about, without the distracting hard-sell of obvious advertising. Branded content is, well, polite.
Branded content takes a more subtle and – if executed properly – authentic approach to cozying up to consumers who may share a brand’s values and have an interest in a particular product or service. By working with an independent content creator, a brand is basically borrowing the credibility of a trusted content creator – say, Devin Super Tramp on YouTube – and asking that trusted voice to introduce the brand to their audience. It’s much the same as having a popular friend introduce you to his network at a cocktail party. If he thinks you’re cool, then his friends will think you’re cool, right?
If you choose to adopt the second tactic - which is to essentially become an effective content producer yourself - you are committing to producing engaging, authentic content in-house or in partnership with your agency. This is tempting for many brands because it is easier to maintain control over content; however, with control comes the dangerous temptation to sell vs. entertain or educate.
Branded Content Examples
Partnerships with independent content creators (in this case, Devin Super Tramp):
- · Speed Stick GEAR - Canyon Swing Test
- · Mountain Dew – Human Bungee Slingshot
- · Ford – Longboarding Adventure
- · Red Bull - Felix Baumgartner's epic skydive
- · Dove – Real Beauty Sketches
- · Chipotle – The Scarecrow
- · Burt’s Bees – Six Second Classics
The downside for advertisers entering into branded content relationships is that control is often relinquished to the trusted content creator. I repeat Forrester’s definition above: This is NOT advertising, and you will lose a great deal of control in this realm of marketing. However, what you gain can be very powerful and effective.
There was a lot of discussion in the VidCon Branded Content breakout session from content creators, who argued that they too have a brand, and they cannot risk eroding their audience's trust by shilling for your brand. There needs to be strong personality and value alignment between the brand and content creator in the first place, in addition to a high level of trust from the commercial brand to let the creator introduce the brand to the community in a successful way. If that scares you, branded content may not be for you….yet.
If control-freak brand managers exert too much influence (for example, demanding that a tagline is used in the content, or trying to control the content narrative itself), the whole process can backfire. If the fickle audience even gets a sniff of “selling," the effort can do more harm than good.
Branded content can be a very measurable, meaningful approach to marketing without the hard sell. Research has shown that smart insertion of a commercial brand within a creator’s normal content can have great impact on brand awareness and affinity, and can even drive direct marketing metrics such as followers, web site visits and sales conversion. But just as a hard-selling guest at a cocktail party becomes quickly unwelcome, these marketing goals need to flow out of a tasteful, intelligent conversation approach to content.
Innovative brands such as Red Bull have figured out branded content so well that they themselves are becoming trusted sources of content. They and a handful of other brands are considering developing their own branded media channels. It’s yet to be seen whether their efforts will appeal to any consumers other than their existing passionate brand advocates, but it’s certainly a logical pilot.
One final reminder for content marketing of any type: it takes patience. Content marketing is a long-term play, although certain viral hits can parlay an unknown brand into the limelight. However, while everyone wants a “viral” video, they are by definition rare and difficult to pull off: a “viral” video is one that gets shared far beyond an expected set of followers, and that is more often achieved by an independent voice who introduces a brand to the world than one fully managed and controlled by the brand itself (there are exceptions, but very few).
To explore how branded content might fit into your marketing strategy, please contact us. We have excellent marketing strategy and brand workshops that might help you understand its impact.