How To: Create Better Branded Content

Do you know what I really hate? A disruptive ad. If you make me click through a timer screen or scroll through one of those never-ending ads that only ever seem to show up when I’m reading on my phone, I will hate you a little bit. I won’t stop reading your site (I’m loyal to the end), but I will get cranky and think twice before clicking your links.

Surprisingly, perhaps, what I don’t hate is native advertising. There’s something unobtrusive about an ad that comes across as content. (Disclaimer: I used to write sponsored content for Task & Purpose.) It doesn’t hurt that native advertising has become more like the content I look for. From BuzzFeed, I can expect branded quizzes (and I always take their quizzes, try as I might to deny it), while The Washington Post and others give me smart sponsored content that, yes, tries to sell me something, but also makes me think.

The “advertorial” is one of the most popular and effective means of attracting customers through sponsored content. Because sponsored content mirrors the look and feel of the publication, it doesn’t come across as a direct advertisement. That means that sponsored content wins out because of the quality of the content, as well as the relevance to readers and the entertainment or information value that it includes. Besides, according to a 2016 report from Nielsen, consumers had more recall of and affinity for brands and products shown in sponsored content than in such things as pre-roll advertisements.

News publishers are the go-to for quality branded material. But big national publishers aren’t the only ones who can benefit from branded content. If you have a print or online publication, the current backlash against obtrusive ads and the increased spending on native advertising means you have an opportunity to grow your reach and revenue by offering branded content.

So, how can your publication get into the branded content business?

1) Leverage your reliability as a news producer. As Annie Granatstein, head of The Washington Post’s BrandStudio, notes, people come to her for branded content precisely because they know the power of the Post’s journalism. By partnering with a trusted news source, advertisers are ensuring that their ad is trusted, too.

“As more advertising dollars move into native, publishers have an opportunity to generate more revenue by creating branded content,” Granatstein says.

“Additionally, there is a reputational benefit. If the custom studio creates award-winning content, it enhances the reputation of the publisher’s brand and increases the value of advertising with that publisher,” she continues. “We call this ‘tip of the spear’: having a respected custom content studio increases other ad revenue.”

2) Show up to the table with realistic expectations. As the director of communications for, a digital jewelry retailer, Shannon Delany has helped create some truly viral branded content, but she knows going in that she has to rely on not only her own ideas, but the expertise of the content partners she’s working with.

“We come to our partners with briefs that outline our audience and the goals of the piece of content that we’re looking to create. When it’s a sponsored post, we also share key talking points. Then we put the ball in the court of the content creator,” Delany explains. “They know their audience and it’s about striking that balance between getting our message across and doing it in a way that makes sense for their audience, fitting in seamlessly with all of the other content that they create.”

On the other side of the equation, Granatstein says that publishers need to come to the table prepared, as if they’re presenting a news story to their editor.

“We take an intense story-first approach, which is core to The Washington Post’s DNA, conducting deep journalistic investigation to find the fresh angles that will resonate with our audience,” Granatstein says. “We focus on topics for which the brand organically has a unique POV and marry that with what we know will resonate with The Washington Post’s readership. Only after we’ve identified the story, do we think about the best way to tell it that is innovative and organic to the Post.  We call this method: Story first, last and always.”

The Post’s method is essential to creating quality, relatable and investment-worthy branded content. Readers who visit a news site and find sponsored content that feels like an afterthought won’t be impressed by the brand — or the publisher.

3) Have a clear call to action. That could be something as simple as directing readers or viewers to the sponsor’s website, having them sign up for a newsletter or asking them to install an app. “A clear [call to action] is a great way to get them to go beyond the content and have a direct interaction with your brand, thereby increasing the odds of recall,” Delany explains.

“In terms of long term vs. short term recognition, that’s a decision you need to make internally,” Delany continues. “We expect our content to drive traffic to the site immediately. That being said, we show different content at different stages of the funnel. One piece of content may be more relevant for those people at the beginning of the process and be used as a way to introduce our brand. We hope that this will have a long-term impact as they move through the process. Other pieces of content are meant for those that are further down the funnel. These should drive immediate action and (hopefully) conversion.”

If publishers and advertising partners follow these basic steps, we can expect to see more growth in the native ad realm. As Granatstein notes, “[Because] people are able to easily ignore ads, advertisers should be driven to create stories that are compelling and not directly promotional to reach them, creating a better reading experience.”

To do this, Delany suggests that publishers think of their branded content as if they were consumers.

“At the end of the day, we’re all consumers. We know what it feels like when a content creator promotes something in a style or category that is not at all consistent with their own personal brand. It feels disingenuous and, more often than not, doesn’t perform as well,” she says. “It’s all about striking that balance so both sides see benefit.”

This article is part of a new how-to series from the Alliance. Each week we’ll cover a new topic to help members figure out new ways to do business, from advertising opportunities to storytelling techniques and everything in between. And we want to know what you’re interested in reading about. Please email or tweet @editrixjen and tell us what you’ve learned in the past year, or what you want to learn in the coming year. We look forward to hearing from you!


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