A Complete Guide to Branded Content Strategy


The term branded content marketing is somewhat controversial. Its detractors believe it blurs the line between advertising and content marketing, diminishing the image of the content marketing industry as a result.

So, why the controversy? Well, more than a handful of big brands have simply taken their logo and integrated it or with something for the sake of doing so, without giving any real consideration to the development of a natural and meaningful partnership or the creation of a wider narrative. This is often seen with sponsorship deals, especially in sport.

So-called ‘logo slapping’ is an ineffective form of branded content because it doesn’t mean anything. Without a brand image and personality behind the logo, brand marketing is effectively reduced to crude advertising.

Locating an opportunity and forging ahead full-throttle without putting much thought into a more meaningful strategy is unwise and extremely transparent. Audiences now expect more and frankly, both they and the brand deserve more.

In this article, I want to take a deep dive into how branded content strategy can create a powerful and enduring brand image and how video can be at the forefront of this approach. First though, let’s begin with an example.

John Lewis

A prime example of a hugely successful branded content strategy that immediately springs to mind is the annual Christmas TV ad created by John Lewis. By prioritising narrative and seamlessly incorporating products around a central story, John Lewis has seen enormous success and built an audience who loyally tune into these festivities every year.

As with any long-term content strategy, some individual adverts were more successful than others, however the return on investment (ROI) extends far beyond shares and video views. Between 2012 and 2016, sales soared by 35%.

The key elements of John Lewis’s campaign are in how the content aims to entertain and connect with consumers emotionally through a strong narrative. This all contributes to the construction of the brand image that John Lewis has become synonymous with.

Content marketing such as this, is typically created for consumers at the top of the marketing funnel. It’s less about selling products per se, and more about brand awareness and image building. Indeed, many of John Lewis’s Christmas ads focus more on the idea of ‘giving’ rather than the product being given.

Let’s break branded video strategy down into its three distinct stages.

The Power of Emotion

With on-demand TV and ad blockers minimising consumer contact with advertising, businesses must turn their attention from passively broadcasting generic content to creating video content that audiences feel compelled to seek out. Would be brands, need to think more like a publisher and less like an advertiser.

Your branded content strategy should strike a balance between the following:

  • Reflecting the standards of the brand
  • Delivering maximum innovation and creativity within a realistic budget
  • Making people care
  • Guaranteeing maximum visibility
  • Avoiding one hit wonders and poor performers

It’s also important to note that many consumers make emotional purchasing decisions. So, although your primary goal isn’t to generate leads and sales, creating strong emotional responses in your audiences will help to drive strong positive associations, which in turn will generate sales further down the marketing funnel.

There are 4 primary emotions that work well within branded content:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Surprise/fear
  • Disgust/anger

Positivity and happiness have driven success for brands for decades, with no sign of slowing anytime soon.

Recently, however, businesses and marketers have begun to recognise the unique power of inspirational and moving content that elicits tears from audiences. P&G’s ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign proved to be a total tear-jerker and a huge success.

From horror films to rollercoasters sometimes, bizarrely, we like to feel scared. At least, some of us do. Fear often provokes a reaction and brands know that shocking imagery tends to stick with us. Anti-smoking campaigns like this one from the CDC [6] adeptly utilise fear and shock to ensure their message carries.

Similarly, as anger also incites a response, the Always #LikeAGirl campaign secured success by making a timely contribution to a wider conversation which is continuing to gain momentum today.

The Core Benefits of Branded Content

Joe Pulizzi from the Content Marketing Institute wisely states that your brand travels further the less your brand is mentioned in your content. This is in keeping with the audience-centric approach. Entertain or inform first, sell later. This is top of the funnel stuff, so although placing your audience at the heart of your idea generation and planning process may well risk side-lining your products altogether, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So, to recap a bit, let’s take a quick look at why you might choose to select this form of content over any other.

• Strengthen your Brand Image and Narrative

Consumers arguably care about who you are as a brand now more than at any other time in the history of advertising and marketing. Success in the digital landscape is reliant on taking a meaningful step away from traditional approaches and utilising storytelling and clear values to strengthen your image and boost your brand awareness.

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• Tap into Established Audiences Through Smart Partnerships

The rise of social media platforms has created thousands of internet-celebrities. If you identify a way to connect with an online influencer, you are immediately opening the doors of opportunity to reach their network of typically hyper-engaged and keen-to-interact individuals.

• Encourage Audiences to Pay Attention

Emotional connections prompt action. By connecting with your audience on an emotional level, you are inviting them into a more meaningful relationship both with the subject matter of your content and your brand. Additionally, branded content can also encourage your audience to interact with each other, emboldening a community of people to act collectively.

Getting the ideas that align with your brand

The Idea Development Process

Working with a creative team who comprehensively understand your brand and your motivation is crucial. Your unique concept will emerge from a concoction of psychology, trends, insight, creativity, and innovation. Key things to keep in mind during the content ideation process are:

  • Maintain a Strong Identity

Think about your brand archetype and ask yourself is your idea reflecting these values and attributes. Your content must instil feelings of familiarity toward your brand from your audience. Be off the wall, unpredictable and be surprising, but do it in a way that people will expect you to have done in hindsight (if you get my meaning).

The digital landscape is essentially saturated with content, which is why originality is so crucial. It’s not necessarily about creating a wholly new idea, but it is about finding different ways of presenting familiar subject matter that feels new and fresh.

Whatever story you want to tell, it must be compelling, hyper-relevant to your audience, and able to traverse all barriers to success. Telling brand stories is a bit like telling any other story, so be sure to put narrative at the forefront. Any CTA or product needs to fit into and complement this narrative; not the other way round.

Making your audience feel something is what will ultimately drive much of your brand association, awareness, and loyalty. Whether you want to make your audience laugh or cry, you need to do this well and you need it to fit into your broader brand identity.

Activation

As digital content continues to become more prevalent, the ways in which you use the content you have created will become as important as the content itself. In other words, the planning and creation processes only form part of your journey to branded content success.

Video activation is all about getting the content in front of the right audiences. Once again, it is critical to keep your campaign objectives at the heart of every activation decision you make. After investing time, energy and resources into creating the ideal branded campaign for your business, you need to guarantee that your audience can find, watch and engage with it easily. Don’t play hard to get.

Activating Video Content on YouTube

As the largest video platform and one of the most powerful search engines, let’s take a look at how you’d go about activating content on YouTube and getting it seen by as many relevant people as possible. Below are some key considerations to a YouTube activation strategy.

• Title

Be as descriptive as possible within a 50-character limit. Provocative titles are more appropriate for viral content because they rely on being deliberately vague to drive clicks. Instead, concise specificity is the aim of the game, with a tone that suits your brand. The 50-character limit isn’t technically an unbreakable rule but it will ensure that your whole title is displayed in Google search results, which is infinitely helpful for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.

• Description

As this is used to determine search rankings, the first few sentences of your description are key. So, in a section with a 5,000-character limit, aim to make the first 100 characters exceptionally valuable. Slide in your primary target keywords for additional SEO benefits and if driving traffic to your website is a key objective, include your website URL too.

• Tags

Used for SEO purposes to boost your visibility and help interested audiences locate your content with ease, including the right keywords is an essential component of your content activation strategy. There are several tools you can utilize to identify the most effective tags. Consider categories, subject matter, timescales, geography, and even common misspellings to ensure that you don’t overlook anything important.

• Paid Promotion

You might not want to rely solely on organic reach, in which case you will want to have in place a paid promotion plan. In Google Adwords, for example, you can create a TrueView campaign which will allow your video to be promoted on YouTube, either through in-display or in-stream placement. You can also target specific topics, demographics, locations, etc so again, understanding your audience plays a big part in the success of any paid promotion.

• Embedded Video

Audiences generally spend more time on websites with embedded video content. Embedding directly from YouTube is a simple process, so your most important consideration here is where to place your content to ensure maximum visibility. Your decision will naturally depend on the content of your video but as branded content is largely very visual, treating it as the star of the show and surrounding it with a strong and clear call-to-action (CTA) will often drive the best results.

Email and Social Media as Distribution Channels

As the people subscribed to your newsletter will generally genuinely want to receive your updates, it makes sense to post your branded video directly into the inboxes of some of your most engaged followers. This is also an excellent way to help you to determine how watchable and appealing your content is because if it doesn’t perform well amongst this demographic you’ll know you’ve made a mistake somewhere.

Additionally, as they have already demonstrated an interest in your brand, they are more likely to keep watching your content for longer. This is important because YouTube and Google use watch time metrics when determining search rankings, so aim to send an email out to your contacts no more than 3 days after publication. As you need your contacts to actually open the email to reveal the content inside, A/B testing your subject lines will help you to secure solid open rates and give your content the best chance to succeed amongst this highly-engaged section of your audience.

Social platforms are inherently visual and are designed for engaging content. From pinning your video to the top of your social profiles to connecting with online influencers and experimenting with targeted posting, the power of social media is immense. It’s worth noting, however, that Twitter and Facebook’s algorithm give preferential treatment to native video, so if securing maximum visibility on either of these platforms is your aim, then it makes sense to upload content directly to each respective platform rather than sharing a link to the video on YouTube.

Don’t forget to Measure and keep Adapting

If you don’t closely monitor the performance of your video and measure it against key metrics, you aren’t ever going to be able to determine its success, identify aspects that could be refined, or understand what you could have done differently to maximise your ROI.

There are many video metrics that you can measure over time in order to gauge relative positives and negative about your content and adapt accordingly. Understanding what to watch is all about understanding your motivations and goals and this goes back to formulating a strong branded content strategy (which I discussed earlier in this piece.)

One metric to watch though it ‘watch time’. YouTube favours content for the first seven days after its publication, so it’s important to think of this as your prime window of opportunity. You’ll want to really promote the hell out of your content during this time and measure the results carefully.

After seven days, Google will use your watch time as its primary metric (watch time is generated by calculating the percentage of your video watched by your average viewer). In other words, the higher watch time you can get in those first seven days, the more likely your video will maintain a strong search presence and continue to attract hits. As such, you will want to keep a close eye on your search rankings (in both Google and YouTube).

Another metric that can be useful is social engagement. If you are to build a brand then you will undoubtedly need to leverage the huge potential of social media. Social shares, comments, likes and mentions are all key indicators of how much reach your content is gaining.

A final note: Don’t assume that your first branded video will be a roaring success. Failure’s can be turned into successes if you are able to learn from them so make sure you understand what you are measuring, what you expect to achieve and why. If you miss the mark, then this info will be crucial in understanding why and getting it right next time round.

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