Branded content is a form of advertising where the content doesn’t focus explicitly on a product or brand, but instead entertains or informs in a way that aligns with a brand’s values and audience. Branded content campaigns may include video, articles, social media posts, infographics, and podcast episodes.
It’s an advertiser’s dream – make a modest investment in a piece of branded content and watch it over-perform like crazy, achieving viral greatness and 100 times the original spend in earned media. The content producers become legends and the mid-level marketing exec who blessed the idea suddenly looks like a promotable genius.
But it rarely ever happens like that. For every branded content campaign that catches viral fire, there are a host of underperformers that fall flatter than most people thought the Earth used to be. Campaigns that cost more than they should – that require a social media dollar shell game to hit the numbers promised. Content pieces that are so obviously selling you something that someone at work actually uses the dreaded 11-letter word: advertorial.
So, what does a successful branded content campaign look like? As Managing Editor of Native Advertising at Woven Digital (now Uproxx Media), I was responsible for responding to hundreds of requests for proposals (RFPs) from major advertisers and then producing whatever native content pitches we sold through. These pieces ranged from experiential to parallax sites to editorial support for branded videos. The daily goal? Creating branded content people would welcome, not shun. Engage with, not evacuate.
In efforts to shine a light on some of the best branded content over the last few years, I’d like to share four examples of pieces (or campaigns) that did something right for me — not because they won awards, but because they achieved something creatively while generating millions of impressions through engagement, shares, and earned media. A solid goal while searching for your next freelance writer, or publisher to produce a campaign.
Tip #1. Make Your Native As Compelling As Real, Non-Paid for Content
The collaboration between Netflix and Wall Street Journal, called “Cocaineomics,” is still a first-ballot Hall of Famer when it comes to native advertising. In efforts to drive interest in the Netflix original series Narcos, Wall Street Journal Custom Studios created a parallax site covering everything you could possibly want to know about the business of cocaine, drug smuggling, and the Medellin drug cartel. The result was a thoroughly reported, interactive experience with embedded show clips, animations and long-form articles from an established journalist that, with all its moving parts, cultivated a genuine interest in the topic — a true mark of good native.
It’s something to consider when you’re seeking out the services of a freelancer on ClearVoice. Think about the writer you hire as someone who should know a subject well. That, or be confident enough that they will learn it because when something is “branded,” you have to instantly earn people’s attention — and keep it. Nothing comes automatically in this world, because at the end of the day, it’s an ad — and at this point, everyone knows it.
Tip #2. Fit Social Into Your Branded Content Strategy Because, Well, People Talk
One of my favorite branded content campaigns put a fresh coat of paint on the idea of using social media to sell product. Krylon, a leading spray paint manufacturer, hatched “The First Ever Pinterest Yard Sale.” It was a campaign that started, yes, with a series of funny TV spots, but blossomed into a “127 yard sale tour” over 690 miles starring daily digital pieces, a charitable component, and a social media angle that fit beautifully into the company’s positioning that spray paint can bring old things back to life. Here’s the gist of the campaign:
I love this campaign for so many reasons. One, it’s a brilliant idea: People buying items at yard sale cheap, repainting them and then selling those same items back to the world at a markup for charity. Two, it positions spray paint as a hero in a fun, re-usable, Earth-friendly way, spotlighting one man’s trash as another’s treasure.
Three, and most importantly to this example, Krylon found the perfect partner in a new social functionality from image-obsessed, female-fueled social network Pinterest, becoming the first brand to utilize “Buyable Pins.” Then they fueled interest in the campaign using Pinterest tutorials and promoting them on Twitter to show people how to resurrect items relinquished to the yard sale heap. Ultimately, the “World’s Longest Yard Sale” generated $2.7M in earned media for Krylon over the first couple weeks (based on a $200K investment), boosted their Pinterest following by 400%, and helped “millions of people see spray paint in a new and useful way.” That’s a success story.
Tip #3. Show Up Where People Don’t Expect You
There are all sorts of big, expensive, stunty marketing campaigns that I could mention here (like Toyota’s rock-climbing wall in Times Square or that time Red Bull sent a man into space), but in the realm of the unexpected, I like what 111-year-old company, American Greetings, does to stay relevant in a world that could easily dismiss it.
You might be thinking American Greetings, really? Yes, hear me out. In an intriguing/unexpected marketing tactic, American Greetings shows up at high-profile events such as SXSW and CES in Las Vegas — where technology rules the day — and reminds people that analog inventions such as stitch-making, typography and handwritten cards are still important. In fact, earlier this year, I interviewed actor/spokesperson for mankind, Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson of Parks & Rec fame) for Uproxx at the American Greetings tent at CES, where they were touting a big reveal called A Device Like No Other. Ultimately, it was one big reminder that handwritten greeting cards still exist, allowing people to send them from the tent for free. And they did it by finding an actor who was a perfect fit to align with this particular activation, creating a press-friendly event smack dab where you least expect it.
True it’s more a PR stunt than branded content, but since 49% of people who attend branded events share a mobile video from it, their use of Nick Offerman was smart, getting covered by people and media outlets such as The Verge, CNET, Mashable and AdWeek, creating a ripple effect garnering added earned media. It was brand lift American Greetings would never get at a greeting card convention or via some sappy commercial on TV.
Tip #4. Find the Right Influencer to Amplify Your Idea — Even If It’s Santa on a Snowboard
It can be tough for a brand like Samsung to communicate “cool” to millennials, especially when their phones literally set fires on planes. The second most undignified way to de-plane… Thanks for that United. But like tapping into Nick Offerman’s celebrity appeal, pairing a smart idea with the right influencer like ex-vlogger/YouTube sensation, Casey Neistat, can take your brand to new heights.
Especially when it involves a human-flying drone:
This is the kind of video that makes the Internet great. Short form, adventurous, and with just the right amount of WTF. In it, Neistat gets airborne, being towed across the snowy streets, slopes and skies of Santa’s Village in Finland. The whole thing is pretty amazing, and the payoff (spoiler alert) is when Neistat lights two red flares on his boarding boots and jets into the night sky like Kris Kringle on a flight of reindeer-fueled fancy. This video was shot using Samsung Gear 360 VR, using a customized human-carrying drone and to date, has gotten 8.5M+ views on YouTube, generating priceless press and positive vibes for Samsung — at a time when they need it most.
It all goes to show: Sometimes it’s not just about thinking outside the box, but about building an entirely new box. If we can do that, the world of branded content will be a better place for all of us.