December 7th 2017

One Net Guide: The River of Branded Content

Image Deanna Ladret

Branded content is a type of creative asset that focuses on building relationships with your audience, rather than driving a 'hard sell'. Branded content offers entertainment, helpful information, or other useful 'chunks' of information with the goal of engaging your audience.

Branded content is the future because customers are tired of ads and are demanding more. In today's mobile-first world, the rise of scrolling experiences has forced brands to think outside the banner-ad 'box' of days past, and look for innovative ways to prompt interaction with customers without interrupting their flow.

"Consumers gravitate toward brands with snackable, educational content — not brands giving the hard sell." –Micro-Moments, the Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile, Google, 2015 Branded content offers the perfect solution to this conundrum. If you're going to interrupt someone while they're browsing their Instagram feed, give them something cool to look at and they might end up being glad you're there (or at the very least, not minding). Cool, right.

"True branded content does not look or feel like an advertisement, and often has to be produced differently." -Mitchell Reichgut, Co-Founder & CEO, Jun Group Branded content takes on many forms, from How-To videos on YouTube, to cinematic storytelling, to memes and Gifs, hashtag campaigns, DIY/life hacks, live real-world events, or 'viral' video clips. Deployed correctly, branded content is trackable/measurable and can drive significant revenue over time as part of your media budget.

The most important thing to remember is that branded content can't feel like a commercial or a traditional 'ad'. It needs to be native, blending in with its environment to invite organic engagement. In order to achieve this, you need to approach it from a different production angle.

#mobileshift: Native Ads and Kids These Days

82% of smartphone users turn to their phone to influence a purchase decision while in a store.[1]

The term 'micro moments' was coined by Google to define the crucial shift in consumer behaviour brought on by the adoption of smartphones into mainstream North American life.

No longer do we use a single device to make a purchase decision. No longer are we only 'connected' as long as we're at home and near our plug in telephone. We're always scrolling, always searching, always communicating, always evaluating...always sharing. We move seamlessly and fluidly from screen to screen. The race to meet — and captivate — users in these 'micro-moments' is becoming fierce. Smart brands are figuring out how to get there, and they're winning.

After seeing branded video on their smartphones, 40% of users visited the store or brand website; 28% made a purchase.[2]

A by-product of the mobile shift is that traditional display ad models don't always adapt well to the scrolling experience. So came the introduction of native ads to the mix. When we reference 'native ads' here, what we mean are ads that look and feel like regular content in a social feed (like Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook) but are in fact sponsored by a brand (not to be confused with 'native ads' as a term for ads bought outside of a traditional network like AdWords). A recent study[3] indicated that native ads are far outperforming traditional mobile display. Does this mean any old native ad will net your brand instant results? No. In fact, poorly-executed or deceptive native ads can actually have the opposite effect[4]. But more about that in the next section.

Tune-out + Avoidance = New Kids on the Block!

"Sometimes it takes a while for entrenched and fundamentally unproductive business practices to die, but it's safe to say that traditional advertising, with its focus on "one way" communications to the closer to death's door than ever." –Ross Gerber, CEO, Gerber Kawasaki Investors So we've covered the mobile shift as one pre-cursor to the rise in branded content's popularity. There's another important factor here, and that's our consumer.

First, it was The Millennials. Now it's GenZ, and whoever else is out there...young, unpredictable, with their selfies and hashtags. But Gen Z can give us many clues about what's to come. According to 2015 research by Pew, 88% of teenagers have, or have access to a smart phone, with over a third of that group communicating via chat apps like Kik, WhatsApp, etc. This presents brands with lucrative opportunities to inject content directly into the flow of peer-to-peer conversation.

There's a good chance that if you're reading this, you're a Millennial, in which case you too know what it means to be a Master of Avoidance + Tune-out. Do you even notice ads anymore? If you're one of the 12 people left in North America who still subscribes to cable, do you sit captive through a boring commercial, or do you just change the channel? If you get a pop-up ad on your smartphone, are you tapping that top right-hand corner before the little [X] has even loaded...never mind reading what's on the ad? Of course you are. We've become experts at ignoring information that is irrelevant or uninteresting.

That's bad news for brands that are stuck in the nineties. Today's consumer wants connection, engagement, and relevance. When it comes to her favourite brands and products, she wants to be active participant, not a passive recipient.

So, how do you cut your brand through 5,000 daily ad exposures, and bring it up to one of those coveted dozen that actually make an impression? Engagement. How do you generate engagement? Through relevant content.

What's your 'Big Tent': finding the right conversation

In order to create content that really resonates with your audience and prompts engagement, you'll first need to do some research on what they want to know. This will arm you with the insight you need to tell stories or start conversations that will stick.

At One Net we call this 'The Big Tent'. What's the theme, the conversation you're going to start or tap into? Establishing this Big Tent creates the frame for your activities and keeps you focused on what's relevant. Watch for a post coming soon that explores this theory in depth.

Research time!

In the meantime, Google has some great advice on how to unearth an audience's hidden needs and wants in their paper called Micro Moments: your Guide to Winning the Shift to Mobile. Once you identify these needs and wants, you can create your Big Tent. Essentially, Google breaks down micro moments by type, and then provide a list of 'Key Questions' to help you evaluate what your users might be thinking, wanting, needing in any given moment.

You can also run some basic analytics on your existing users and your website visitors to get a general impression of their demographic makeup. In addition to the basics, Google Analytics offers some fairly general (yet still useful) information about the other things your visitors look at online. You'll know things like age, gender and geographic location. Of course, if you have a SaaS product you'll likely have even deeper insights via your customer database.

Once you're armed with your data, look at all of the possible spots along the customer journey where you could conveniently show up with some helpful little chestnut of content. The intention here is to nudge yourself out of Stranger Zone and into the Friend Zone (which in this case, is good).

"Oh, wow! Didn't know you'd be here. Look, I'm here too...with snacks! Want some?" — Your Brand, 'coincidentally' showing up just when your prospect was feeling a bit peckish.

It's not a transaction, it's a relationship

The Big Tent theory is about connecting people with your brand in a thoughtful way, not pushing your product.

This concept can be very scary for many, especially those deeply married to the adage that the PRODUCT should always be the hero. Nay, your customer should be the hero, because you've just empowered her with a helpful DIY piece, or made her laugh with a funny video. Now she is endeared to you.

This is not a transaction. This is a relationship. There is a time and a place for product ads in your media buy, but they don't belong in your Big Tent.

Invite your audience to your Big Tent

So we've introduced the idea of the Big Tent — a space within the noise that you own as a thought leader or thought facilitator. Your content should add value for your customer, not simply generate leads.

Quality has emerged over quantity as the method to own conversations, build brand awareness and drive growth.

All the Shapes and Sizes

As we've already covered, old advertising techniques that place the product on a pedestal and depict one narrow view of 'life' are losing out to engaging content that brings customers along for the ride, or meets them where they're at and connects in a meaningful way. In this section we'll show some examples — both hypothetical and real — of how Big Tent content strategy invites engagement.

But first, a retrospective.

Let's say it's 1984 and we're trying to hock toasters in the super cutthroat world of consumer home appliances. A typical cable TV ad would probably go something like this:

It's early morning in suburban America. White, fortysomething 'Greg' wakes up, stretches. In the background we hear some uplifting music and a throaty male voiceover coo "It's another morning at Greg and Sharon's place..."

Two pyjama-clad children with slightly tousled hair come padding out of their rooms and in the next frame, we see the entire family of 4 sitting groggy/happy around the breakfast table. Greg pours Sharon a coffee; she gives him a peck on the cheek. She bends down to pet the golden retriever who has come bounding in from somewhere.

On the kitchen counter, we see a gleaming toaster. Four perfect slices pop out in tandem as the children's eyes light with anticipation.

Commercial wraps as everyone's enjoying a balanced breakfast with a healthy dose of warm-hearted laughter. Lens softens around family scene, toaster remains perfectly in focus in foreground.

"Introducing the Premium Supreme 4 Slice Toaster from Deluxe Electronics. All the best from our family to yours!"

Vs. Now...

Assuming Deluxe Electronics decided to adapt with the times, here's what their 2017 media strategy might include:

  • Toast Hacks— Instagram native ad campaign featuring wicked awesome toast topping ideas from popular online food bloggers ...brought to you by Deluxe Electronics
  • My Morning web series / video campaign stories about how different people/families from all walks of life get up and start their day (toaster not necessarily pictured)
  • Viral hashtag campaign on Twitter; people make slices of toast look like popular celebrities and post them online (#celebtoast)
  • Tip video for new parents about babyproofing and safety around electrical appliances

All of that was fictitious, of course, but the analogy illustrates the possibilities for creative content to reach new audiences and build brand loyalty. But enough make believe. Let's dive into some different types of branded content and review some real examples.

The One Net River of Branded Content

Noisy Seal

Recognizable by:

  • One-way messages nobody asked for
  • Chest thumping
  • Interrupting/interfering

Nobody likes a noisy seal. Noisy seals bark and splash and make a scene people never asked for, a la aggressive remarketing campaigns, annoying commercials before streaming content, and mobile interstitial ads that have nothing to do with the game you're about to play.

They're also only interested in themselves. As you'll see from the illustration, our naughty noisy seal has just unleashed a flood of one-way advertising, sweeping away that nice frog and seagull who were just trying to go about their day. Too much.

Solar Panel Charger Gorilla

Recognizable by:

  • How-to or helpful content
  • Giving away things people USE (How To type video content, food brands that share recipes, etc)

Solar Panel Charger Gorilla is here to help. He's thinking of ways to make himself useful to his audience, thinking "what do they need, that I can provide?"

This clever guy made a solar charging station, because we all know electrical outlets are hard to find near the river.

If you want to channel the Solar Panel Gorilla, you can start by thinking about what your audience might need to know. How-To video tutorials, posts and 'hacks' are highly effective because they give people this useful information when they're in a critical 'how do I...' micro-moment.

Are you a SaaS brand with a work productivity app? Try making a tutorial video about optimizing your desk space at work. Are you a music streaming service? Have an up-and-coming musician new to your platform give a drum demo.

Impact Octopus

Recognizable by:

  • Concern for social issues
  • Content that invokes emotion (humour, sentimentality, etc)
  • Cultural importance (current event, ideological, impetus for change, etc)

Impact Octopus is here to make a difference, leave a lasting impression or shed light on an important issue.

Whether it's provoking an important conversation, or putting more positive vibes out into the world, or drawing attention to a key issue, Impact Octopus places the cause before the brand.

If your company's big tent leans toward angles of social good, positive change or progressive ideas that transcend the product level, you could choose to create impact content. Below are a few examples of brands that have executed successful impact campaigns.

Examples: Always — Like A Girl campaign, Patagonia — Jumbo Wild, TOMS virtual giving trip, Thai Life Insurance

Party T. Rex

Recognizable by:

  • Entertaining, fun content
  • Lighthearted and/or playful
  • Social, community building

Party T. Rex hosts brand experiences that are fun. And this fun comes in many shapes and sizes.

It can be as simple as creating a sponsored playlist on Spotify or making a branded Snapchat filter, or as elaborate as rolling out your own miniseries or feature film.

Messaging platforms like Snapchat and Kik make it very easy to do no muss, no fuss branded content that users willingly share within their networks. Branded emoji and sticker kits, gifs and filters give users opportunities to express themselves in fun ways — courtesy of you. On the other end of the spectrum, you can hire a production company to help you develop a branded series for web, TV, VR or even theatrical release.

Party T. Rex content is rapidly gaining popularity in the advertising marketplace as more and more brands recognize the value of entertainment as a way to connect meaningfully with their audience. We wrote about this exciting shift in this post.

Examples: Taco Bell's Taco Tales, Referral SaaSquatch's Veronica Jones: Growth Detective Medium series, JW Marriott Studios' Two Bellmen, The Lego Movie

Branded Content See-Saw

Within all of the examples above (except Noisy Seal), there is a range of brand presence that you can opt to employ. As you'll see from the diagram below, audience engagement — ie: potential virality — tends to rise as brand presence drops. And then, the opposite usually applies in cases where brand messaging is heavy handed. It's not a hard and fast rule, but it's a good guideline to keep in mind.

For example, in the Taco Bell Taco Tales YouTube series, the restaurant chain is there, but as a prop, versus part of the plot. The brand exists to support the story, or as a passive character at most, but doesn't interfere. The same is the case in the Two Bellmen short films produced by Marriott. The films take place around Marriott properties, but it's not about the hotel.

Who can make this lovely content?

As you can probably imagine after reading Chapter 3, the range and scale of your different options for branded content will affect the feasibility of taking on something in-house, vs outsourcing to an agency or production company.

It never hurts to bring in an expert.

If you don't know what you're doing, it might take a few tries for your content campaign to catch on if you're running it in-house. And most growing companies don't have time to waste on experiments. So you can also hire an agency or production company to do it for you. The type of service firm you choose may well depend on what type of branded content you're looking to create.

In other words...

There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but with the right combination of creativity and tactical strategy, branded content can add major horsepower to your marketing effort. You might even reach untapped markets that were not necessarily accessible to your brand before. High fives to that!

If you have any questions about the contents in this Guide or would like to speak to One Net about working with your team, please get in touch. [1] [2] Google-commissioned Ipsos, Brand Building on Mobile Survey, U.S., December 2015. (Smartphone video viewers aged 18–54, n=957). [3] Native Ads: Effective, But Are They Accepted By Consumers? Sterling,, August 2015 [4] Mobile Native Advertising — It's fit, and effective, Mobile Marketing Association, August 2015 .

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