Why branded content is taking over our feeds

By   |   April 11th, 2018   |   Reading time: 12 minutes Brands, Communications & PR, Interviews

brand newsroom, branded content, social media marketing

The lines between editorial and branded content are increasingly blurred. We ask experts from Thrillist, Aetna, & more on how they create content that gets remembered. 

There’s been an evolution in how brands and publishers approach advertising. For the ones that master how to create compelling content, they’ve transformed from being high upon the mountaintop, to actually connecting with their audiences on genuine and meaningful levels.

For example, the brand Gerber was indirectly responsible for the biggest story on social media in February. The brand leaned into a topic that it saw that their audience cared about on a real level.

We wanted to learn more about how brands and publishers are raising the bar and changing the rules around advertising. We gathered 100 innovators across brand newsrooms, PR agencies, and publishers to join us for our first WhipSmart salon of 2018.

We were joined by:

  • James Beechinor-Collins, Regional Director of North America, Text100
  • David Blend, Director of Creative Strategy, Thrillist
  • Lynne Lavelle, Senior Native Living Editor & Content Strategist, POPSUGAR
  • Chris Rackliffe, Director of Social Media Engagement Strategy, Aetna
  • Tyghe Trimble, Director of Branded Content, Fatherly

All moderated by Brett Lofgren, President and CRO of NewsWhip.


Art, plus science


Brett kicked off the panel, “Everyone on our panel has either worked for or started a leading publication in an editorial capacity, and has clearly seen, participated, and influenced change within our space.

With that said, I would love to talk about this transformation and the role that data plays in creating content and developing a winning strategy. It’s not all robots yet… Let’s call it ‘Insights and Instincts’, which David Blend came up with.”

“Data informs absolutely everything we do, there’s never a discussion where we’re not talking about data.” said Chris Rackcliffe of Aetna.

“I’m specifically focused on engagement on our team. It embodies everything we do. We don’t create [content], unless we think people are going to share and comment on it. Even as a 160-year-old company, we’re trying to incorporate things like emoji and humanize the brand in a new way.”

“I grew up in magazines,” said James Beechinor-Collins of Text100, “Data was that ‘we have a cover and it sold this many [copies]’. Today, we have more data than we know what to do with, and the key is turning that data into insight. Who is the audience we’re trying to reach?”

Brett: “For Thrillist, POPSUGAR, and Fatherly, your emphasis may be more on the creative side, but how does data inform the creative elements of your branded content strategy?”

“I’ve been doing this for longer than data has existed I think,” joked David Blend of Thrillist, “The data tells you a lot about what you thought you knew. You need to start with a human understanding of what you thought would work, and that then can be refined.”

“What pops for editorial one day, might not work in two months [when your branded program launches]. If your insights tell you that a story about the ‘cronut’ really popped, you can’t just rewrite ‘The Cronut Story’ — that’s not what the data or your common sense is telling you to do. You need to understand the wider crazy food space and what motivated people to engage with that original story. You’re taking the data and marrying it to your knowledge base to come out with something new and exciting.”


Making branded content that’s actually fun


Brett: “How do you navigate the gray area between pure editorial, sponsored editorial, and content that’s actually about the brand?”

“I think it’s really interesting,” said James Beechinor-Collins, “Don’t let the science drive the art.” James told us about “Antennagate” in 2010, when he was running a global brand campaign for Nokia. There was an issue with iPhones, where if they were held a certain way, they wouldn’t work.

“So we wrote a story about how you can hold a Nokia in any way, and it still works,” said James. “Every piece of data we had told us it was the stupidest thing, but within 24 hours, we had 4,500 pieces of coverage. Data tells you a lot, but being able to do stuff in branded content is gut instinct and being able to take a risk based on that.”

Chris Rackcliffe said, “At Aetna, for Mental Health Monday, we decided to lay a stake in the ground on Twitter, and encourage people to reach out to each other around mental health.”

“It was really interesting to see [what happened around] taking a stance in what a lot of people would stay away from. Social media is becoming much more of a place for discussion about causes and less about vanity.

“At a brand that’s about wellness, and living your best life, it’s really interesting. Aetna donated 200,000 dollars to March for Our Lives, and it received a lot of backlash but it’s worth it to stand out from our competition. If on a human level, you can interact with your followers, then you’re doing something that’s meaningful.”

“At POPSUGAR, where we deal with a lot of brands related to women’s health, it’s about keeping the conversation positive when the circumstances surrounding the need for the product might not be,” added Lynne Lavelle. “In that way, data isn’t the whole story. It can tell us that the brand is a good fit, but not necessarily how to craft the story. While brands want to start a conversation, we might not want that conversation to go in certain directions.”

David Blend jumped in with a specific anecdote, “We did a campaign for a beer company where we had locals from cities without the best reputation write why the city was actually awesome.”

“The one for Houston was really good, the writer took a lot of pride in it, but when we took it to the client, the client asked, ‘Can we take out the scary part?’ Now, when branded content started out, I think people erred in two main directions — either they let the brand take [control of the story] however they wanted, or they become very defensive, which is the angle I took, saying you guys have to back off. I was still thinking like I was on a pure editorial team. But I took at look at the passage in question, and it was too dark, even from an editorial perspective. I talked with the writer, and he actually wanted to edit it, and ended up saying the exact same thing, just less oppressively. That’s the gray area.”

“Eventually you have to find the middle ground,” David said. “The goal is to tell an honest story, in a way that both the publisher and the brand feel comfortable with.”

“It’s a puzzle,” agreed Tyghe Trimble of Fatherly, “I came from magazines, and they’re still very old school. It’s intriguing and hard and requires nuance and grace, and to get a real, emotionally impactful story, that’s ‘brand safe’ and it’s an important thing to deal with. I used to work at Popular Mechanic, and mid-20th century was the heyday of branded content — they had beautifully done DIYs and content, brought to you by Craftsman or Sears.

“It’s good to remember that this is cyclical but it isn’t that new,” said Tyghe.

Brett: “How can publishers make branded content that’s actually interesting, particularly for heavier or drier subjects like B2B or tech?”

“You’re suggesting tech content isn’t interesting!?” joked James. “Data points us in a direction, especially if we have a hypothesis. To understand what’s resonating, what’s at the crossroads.

“One challenge we face with owned brand content, is how do you understand what works. We’ve done analysis with NewsWhip, to see one brand is producing one-third of the content of another but getting three times the engagement, and ask why, what are they producing, what topics are they covering, and what’s resonating?

“That gets us the landscape. We have a great opportunity to target in on a small amount of people and create content that resonates with that.”

“I don’t know that the exact area of overlap is where you create good content,” Lynne added. “We have to always stay one ahead of fatigue with branded content, which means moving beyond the comfort zone, and having a conversation with brands where they trust us to help them do that — and to suggest a direction that they may not have thought of.”

Chris agreed, “We’re trying to stand out from our competitive set. Our ‘we join you’ [platform] is rooted in a human standpoint and real stories.

“How can we surprise people with a purpose and show them that we want to join them? Not just we want to save the company money, but we care about you and your health, and that you’ll come back to us if we do our job right. How can we remain relatable but also purposeful?

“It’s not just how can we create Aetna’s version of a meme, but what can we create that’s both impactful and surprising? There’s a lot of negativity to focus on, so why look at the 99 things that could go wrong around something like breast cancer, when we can look at the one thing that can go right for you. We want to partner with you and lift you up.”


The challenge of being real-time


Brett: “How do you navigate real-time content with branded content? For Aetna, you’re a 164-year-old brand. I can only imagine the hurdles.”

“At Aetna we’ve worked closely with our compliance team to create scenarios in which we can get approval and work in real-time,” said Chris. “Just last week we got approval to work with people who aren’t tweeting at us but talking about our space — mental health, wellness. Our long-term team still goes through longer approval, because it lives outside [of social media].”

“Our answer is that we have to be adaptable,” said James. “We set a benchmark of documentation of what we do at the beginning. For some brands, we are their social team, so it varies client by client, but you have to be in a position to be able to adapt rapidly. It’s having the right team and having the right understanding in place.”

David added, “When we create custom content, the process is generally too long for us to be too newsy. Sometimes we’d like to, but we get an RFP and sometimes it’s six months down the road by the time content goes live. And because we take more time with the content, we want it to be a little different than editorial, because we do have that luxury.”

“POPSUGAR is nimble,” said Lynne, who previously worked on the Thrillist team. “It began as a constantly updating blog about celebrities, and it has maintained that pace. When the story allows, we do move fast, which means having a very direct and detailed conversation with the client at the beginning to nail down the details and manage their expectations.


Measuring a real impact


Brett: “How do you go from creating a blip, to having a sustained effect, especially in terms of driving sales?”

David said, “It depends on what — I can’t believe I’m saying this — what the KPI is. Some publishers are built for some things, some are built for others. We focus more on the top of the funnel, and after a campaign we can absolutely report that people are more aware of the brand, that people recognize the message that the brand wants to be associated with.”

“I’m focused on changing your impression of the company, so for [influencing] open enrollment and changing your plan,” said Chris. “We have a different team, with very specific focuses on “signing up for a Medicare” event, for example, or finding other unique ways to get people in the door.

“It’s interesting to consider how the content we’re creating complements the campaigns that they’re doing. All of that goes into how you perceive the brand, and if you think it’s going to be good enough to support you on your health journey.”

“It depends on who the client is and what the brand objective is,” said James. “Today we have tools to measure pretty much anything.”

“A lot of data analysis is focused on after the fact, but at POPSUGAR we use a proprietary predictive data tool called Trendrank to identify pre-viral trends, ” said Lynne Lavalle of POPSUGAR. “This allows us to conceptualize programs around trending topics ahead of time, and decide closer to launch what the finer details should be.”


What’s next


Brett: “The concept of a brand newsroom didn’t exist 10 years ago. So, it’s pretty exciting stuff.

What does the future hold for branded content and social publishing? What do you see audiences gravitating toward? How do you predict the role of the brand and publisher will change?”

“I think people are migrating to Instagram for branded content,” said Chris. “When I was at Entertainment Weekly, we saw there’s more of an interest in causes and brands standing for something, and less of an interest about celebrities. It’s why we bring up Teen Vogue in a conversation other than fashion.”

“Instagram is a really fun playground for people,” continued Chris, “Getting creative in that environment in a blast. You can also use it in a more serious format.”

Tyghe mentioned he’s been seeing more mini-documentaries on the platforms as well. “Platforms move toward content, and content is what people want. Platforms shift toward people.”

“Platforms will always exist, but I think publications will have more of an impact in the future,” said James. “People want a curation of quality content to produce, but publishers for me are important.”

“Being able to tell a deep engaging story is what matters,” said David. “No matter what platform you use, it has to mean something.

“Looking at the Dodo — it’s not just funny pet videos, they tell amazing stories. They take something people love, and spin them into these beautiful narratives, and the reason people are attracted to them, is that they see themselves in them. Like a dog that’s been through trauma and you can see what you want to be in this dog. And that’s what content’s always been about. And what I always hope it will be.


Thank you to James, David, Lynne, Chris, and Tyghe for joining us this week! For more insights into what’s pushing the needle for branded content, check out NewsWhip Spike.

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