How large media groups launch branded content Units to offset diminishing ad revenues
We are now spending more time in front of a screen than doing anything else, including sleep*. As advertisers look for new ways to spend their print and TV budgets, the survival of media giants around the world is at stake.
Making matters worse, brands have now started to behave like broadcasters and publishers themselves, often bypassing paid media altogether. GE, Marriott, Volvo and Chipotle are some of the brands now competing with Buzzfeed, WPP and Hollywood for talent and eyeballs. While branded content isn’t new (Michelin started publishing its Guide over one hundred years ago and P&G produced its first soap opera in the 1930s), the threat and opportunity these changes present to Big Media are unprecedented.
In an effort to adapt, The New York Times, The Guardian and Viacom among others have entered the branded content game, launching new business units dedicated exclusively to producing and selling branded content (T Brand Studio, Guardian Labs and Velocity, respectively).
We recently completed How to Launch and Run a Branded Content Unit, a manual aimed at major broadcasting and publishing companies. From our secondary research and interviews with executives at the companies above, 6 key principles emerged:
Sixty-one percent readers say that sponsored content hurts publisher credibility*, and they are not alone: directors, writers, designers and journalists in the media business also share the suspicion that branded content is more about manipulation than information.
To address this concern and preserve audience trust, clear labeling is paramount. The Guardian News Media for example applies 2 kinds of labels:
– “Sponsored by” for sponsorship of either existing editorial projects or new editorial projects where a brand has a role – although no final say – in suggesting what kind of topics are covered. Once the idea has been signed off there is no further brand involvement, and the editor-in-chief of the Guardian has ultimate sign off (and power of veto) on any sponsorship deal.
– “Brought to you by” for advertisement-like features. Here the content, which is paid for and controlled by the advertiser, is produced by commercial departments and does not involve GNM staff journalists. It is subject to regulation by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Your audience is not your biggest asset: their trust is. Balancing commercial needs with your editorial integrity is a difficult but crucial exercise. When in doubt, err on the side of editorial integrity: your audience’s respect for your work is what makes you valuable to brands in the first place.
At Fortune’s TOC (Trusted Original Content) the church-and-state separation is maintained by having clients agree on the topic and how it will be distributed but not seeing the content until it’s ready to run. Like any piece of editorial, TOC content goes through the normal Fortune editing process, and editors have the final say over it. Additionally, Fortune TOC is likely to rely on trusted freelancers, which will keep its staff writers far away from the process.
3- CONTENT FIRST, BRANDED LATER
Ask not what your audience can do you, but what you can do for your audience.
Your branded content has to be so good that it lives up to your own reputation as a publisher. T-Brand Studio’s work for Netflix for example ranked among The New York Times’ top 1,000 articles of 2014, with the work coming out of the studio consistently generating 3 times more unique visitors and 5 times more engagement than paid posts produced by other parties*.
“Everyone wants traffic, if your story is good, they will share it for you”.
– T. Kellner, GE Reports.
Importantly, another gauge for quality is your audience’s urge to share it. This is harder than you think, and a key difference between 20th and 21st century media. Typically, content gets shared for 3 reasons:
– because of its identity value (what it says about me).
– because of its emotional value (how it makes me feel).
– because of its insight value (what can be learned from it)
Identifying the social value most aligned with your brand, audience and objectives will help you create content that people will share for you. Buzzfeed went from being an obscure time-killing site to a mainstream competitor by deliberately creating content around these three buckets and calling them “social values”.
Not only will brands stop buying ad-space from you. You will be sharing their stories, for free.
To promote an article on its latest CT Scan technology, GE released impressive GIFs on its Facebook and Twitter channels (pictured above). As social sharing took off, Time Magazine picked and ran the story. In a matter of days Newsweek, The Washington Post, Vice, Forbes, National Geographic, Weibo and The Independent among others ran the story too.
The implication for big media?
If you want to succeed in the branded content game, you not only need a great story, based on a specific social value. You must also make sure it is shareable, beyond your properties. This goes beyond cut-downs and requires you to understand what constitutes “great content” for each different platform.
Like The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, you must see yourself as a content marketing agency and making sure that whatever you create for brands is platform agnostic and can be used on your Client’s own channels.
GRPs or Circulation sound impressive when you boast 2.7m paid subscribers like Nikkei. But it’ll tell you nothing about performance of individual stories, let alone ads. Even worse: by the time content impacts circulation, it is already too late to do anything about it.
Better metrics is one of the reasons brands are flocking to new media: digital content allows for instant feedback on ROI with metrics like engagement rate, attention time, average finish, drop off points, social actions, cost per lead, CTA ratio and bounce rates.
How far into the story did your average reader go? who is your most profitable writer? and what kind of stories are best? not just what topics but also what wording, format, length and placement lead to greater success?
“Marketers want a combination of measurement and distribution. Impressions are great but they want engagement and measurement”
– J. Lucas, head of sales Viacom.
Unfortunately, in the age of Big Data it is still hard to get a definite read on total media performance. Especially once content is shared, tweaked and posted by people you don’t know on platforms you don’t own, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
The best funded media groups responded by either launching and monetizing their own, proprietary measuring tool (e.g. Viacom Ecograph, launched in exclusive partnership with Mass Relevance) or subcontracting custom ones (e.g.The New York Times with Chartbeat*).
Non-media publishers such as Intel and GE rely instead on a combination of third party tools like Google Analytics, Quantcast, Spredfast and GoSquared.
As you learn and improve with every new story, these insights allow for better allocation of resources and ultimately improve your Client satisfaction as well as your own ROI. Not surprisingly, Philippe Dauman wants Viacom’s non-Nielsen dependent ad revenue to grow from 30% today to 50% by 2018.
6- QUALITY IN, QUALITY OUT
Finally, to compete in this new environment, Big Media and 21st century marketers typically look outside their own organizations when it comes to staffing key roles in their new branded content units.
– NYT, TBrand Studio: Meredith Levien (EVP) from Forbes
– GNM, Guardian Labs US: Rachel Israel (EVP) from Mindshare
– GNM, Guardian Labs UK: Anna Watkins (MD) from Initiative, an ad agency
– Viacom, Velocity: Dario Spina (EVP) formerly at DDB
– GE: Beth Comstock (CMO) from NBC Universal
– Starbucks: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, from the Washington Post
– Marriott: David Beebe (VP Content) from Disney ABC TV
– Snapchat: Peter Hamby (Head of News) from CNN