Branded Content: Possibilities, Pitfalls, and Predictions

Branded content business models are evolving and it’s important for publishers to stay on top of brand expectations in order to stay competitive. Moreover, with audience control shifting from content creators to walled gardens, paid distribution of the branded content needs to be baked into the plan from Day One.

A seismic shift happened in the 2010s: Platforms took control of audiences away from publishers and brands. The result is the need to pay-to-play, which comes with a host of challenges. Brands need to find ways to efficiently expand their reach, while publishers need to create sustainable revenue streams that don’t fully rely on volatile organic traffic sources.

Enter branded content. Not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination, but one that is increasingly becoming a key pillar of revenue for a lot of publishers.

On the surface, branded content is a win-win for all sides. Publishers use their core skillset (storytelling and content distribution) to give brands reach that they can’t achieve on their own. In return, brands pay publishers for their expertise and access to their audiences.

With that being said, branded content business models are evolving and it’s important for publishers to stay on top of brand expectations in order to stay competitive. Moreover, with audience control shifting from content creators to walled gardens, paid distribution of the branded content needs to be baked into the plan from Day One.

Impressions Alone? 

Publishers use a variety of models to package their branded content offerings. Those can be anything from selling based on pageviews on their site to video views on Facebook. The focus does, however, tend to revolve around soft engagement metrics (views and impressions) across the publisher’s channels. There are publishers who work on lead generation and other concrete goals, but those still tend to stay within the publisher’s ecosystem, rather than working with the brand’s own site.

This is advantageous for both sides: For publishers, it helps maintain their tone of voice and trust among their audience — they don’t need to incorporate a “hard sell” into the content, which can be a turn-off for readers. For brands, there aren’t necessarily any concrete goals, and general “brand awareness” metrics can often be enough. When brands want to measure activity and business goals on their own site, they are generally hesitant to share those metrics with external partners, including publishers.

That’s not to say that sales-heavy content pieces don’t exist. Affiliate content, for example, has been on the rise over the past few years. Publishers showcase a range of products in an article and link to an online retailer, which in turn pays the publisher commission for any sales that result from the referral traffic. Most commonly, these affiliate links lead to Amazon, where publishers get a small cut of the sale. Branded content models are evolving to include this approach as well. For example, Walmart partnered with Popular Mechanics to sponsor an article that featured 15 bike camping gifts for outdoorsmen alongside links to their respective product pages on

Synergy Is Key to Success

When it comes to branded content, synergy is much more than a buzzword. An alignment between the brand and the publisher is absolutely critical for success. Users engage more often when a publisher’s tone of voice meshes well with a brand’s core values and audience. Here are a couple of examples of this synergy in action:

National Geographic with Brita


In this partnership with Brita, National Geographic created a beautiful content experience that educates users about the consequences of bottled water. The piece is fully aligned with National Geographic’s reverential coverage of nature. On the brand side, Brita positions its water-filter products as alternatives to bottled water. This combination creates a value powerhouse for everyone involved and engages Natgeo’s user base in an innovative way with content that is unique and engaging.

Win Schuler’s and Food Network


In this branded video, Food Network does what it does best: shares a yummy recipe with its audience. Adding Win Shuler’s cheddar into the mix feels natural, and the result is fantastic engagement numbers for the post, bringing value to the publisher, the brand, and most importantly, the user.

Common Distribution Pitfalls

As I mentioned earlier, paid distribution is usually a critical part of making branded content succeed. At Keywee, we’ve worked with hundreds of publishers over the years, helping them distribute their content on Facebook. As a result, we’ve pretty much seen it all, and the truth is that branded content done right isn’t as easy as it seems. Here are a few common pitfalls:

1) Going for the aggressive sell: Publishers don’t always create custom content. Sometimes they post a direct advertisement on their feed. This may fit within a brand’s reach demands, but it doesn’t do much for the publisher’s credibility. These posts diminish trust and are likely to grab more ire than likes or clicks.

Exchanging quality and value in return for a user’s attention is critical to keeping users around. If a publisher doesn’t want to go as far as creating custom content, a smaller-effort initiative like a sweepstakes in conjunction with the brand is a nice middle-ground solution that benefits the user.

2) Over-estimating organic reach: Most publishers commit to a set number of views when selling a content package. There’s usually no separation between paid and organic traffic. When publishers present the results to the brand at the end of an initiative, there’s only “traffic.” It’s not uncommon for a publisher to overestimate its organic reach and then, with a few weeks to go on the initiative, deploy massive paid campaigns to fill in the traffic gaps. The result is a hastily conceived campaign that can quickly become costly.

Fortunately, publishers can easily avoid this with a bit more planning. Whether running their own campaigns or buying through a vendor, it’s fairly simple to work more strategically. If they start executing a conservatively paced and well-planned paid campaign from day one of the initiative, the overall cost and performance will only benefit. The worst-case scenario is that the promised numbers are reached earlier than expected. Even in that situation, there’s a good chance that advertising dollars will be saved overall.

3) Limited reporting: The publisher-brand relationship is very similar to that between an agency and client; there is a customer who is paying for a service and requires proper attention. It’s incredibly common for a customer to want as much information as possible. If a campaign was sold based on impressions, that doesn’t mean that this is the only metric the customer will want to see.

When planning a campaign, remember that the customer will want to see deeper metrics. For example, a publisher could be promoting a video created for the brand. Even if the main metric is an impression, the publisher should keep an eye on the 3- or 10-second view numbers because the client will certainly have an eye on them. Another example is demographic breakdowns. If the publisher committed to a wide array of locations and audiences, and the content is being viewed only by a small subset, then pivoting the targeting strategy becomes critical for success and the brand’s satisfaction.

4) Publisher – brand misalignment: As I mentioned earlier, synergy between a brand and a publisher is critical for success. On the flip-side of this, misalignment can easily turn into a failure on all ends. When putting together branded content packages, the publisher should ask if the content would fit into their editorial vision if it wasn’t a part of the sold package. If the answer is no, then there’s a good chance the content won’t resonate with the user.

Looking Ahead

As long as digital content and advertising prevail, so will branded content. That being said, there are big changes afoot that will significantly impact the brand-publisher relationship.

1) 5G: There have been a lot of predictions about how 5G will affect everything from online shopping to people’s health. What branded content creators should probably keep in mind, at least in the short term, is that video streaming on smartphones will have far less friction than before. 5G is expected to be about 100 times faster than 4G, making streaming on mobile devices easier. Though earlier “pivot to video” pontifications were a bit overblown in hindsight, the strength of improved streaming options shouldn’t be overlooked. Publishers should expect brands to have more aggressive viewability demands as a result.

2) Performance content: Facebook has been encouraging brands to share select performance data with publishers and influencers. For Facebook the value is clear: Performance marketing usually leads to incremental revenue. For brands and publishers, these are choppy waters. Content plays a significant role in the buyers’ journey, but it’s still very difficult to fully attribute it to purchase decisions. A person reading an article about sneakers will not automatically go out and buy a pair. In other words, content consumption does not directly correlate to purchase intent. So far publishers have been hesitant to adopt this innovation, and brand adoption is yet to be seen. That being said, publishers will probably benefit from preparing themselves for a scenario in which brands will ask for more performance-driven metrics.

3) Shop the ‘gram: Instagram is slowly rolling out a new feature that creates a direct funnel to the brand checkout page on the platform. In other words, users will be able to click on a tagged product and immediately be directed to its checkout page. This allows for a seamless user experience and is expected to be a boon for ecommerce brands. Publishers should be on the lookout for requests of this type in the year ahead.

All in all, when it comes to branded content, the bottom line is simple: The combination of synergic content, expectation managing, and proper planning can create a value powerhouse for everyone involved. If publishers stick to these fundamentals, they can easily set themselves up for success.

The Digital and Content Team: Is Splintering a Verb?

In this post we explore the organization of a digital and content team, which we will call “the digital team,” and may include the designers and producers of the website and other digital properties. How you do organize around content and the website at your firm? Is your website appropriately categorized as content and managed out of this group?

target_marketing_blog_part5_1In last month’s blog post, I discussed the ideal demand generation group structure and exactly which functions are best centralized within. In this post we will explore the organization of a digital and content team, while touching upon Web designers, producers and other digital properties.

How you do organize your firm’s content and website? Is your website appropriately categorized as content and managed out of this group?

The Digital and Content Group

The charter of a digital and content group might look something like this:

Create compelling content to drive higher customer and prospect engagement, resulting in more qualified leads for sales. In addition, we will create a fluid customer experience, whether it is through inbound or outbound communications, to create one company feel.

Notice the word “engagement” in there? Companies are spending up to 30 percent of their marketing budgets on content and many have no clue if said content is actually engaging their prospects and customers. Are you measuring the level of engagement with each piece of content you produce today?

The digital and content group is the source of fuel for the demand generation engine. The group builds a roadmap based on input from the subject-matter experts (SMEs), product marketing, sales, requirements gathered from the demand generation team, field marketing and other marketing teams.

If you agree with my premise that the website is content, and as such belongs in the group where content for other media is created, then we arrive at an organizational crossroads. Do the search-, display- and paid-traffic gurus (or agencies) who are traditionally tightly linked to the website designers and producers also belong in this group? Or, since their function is really demand generation, do they splinter from their website production comrades and move into the demand generation group? I won’t rehash what I said in the last post on this, but suffice it to say most organizations have kept them in the same group — at least for now. So the organization chart probably looks like this:

target_marketing_blog_part5_2As marketing organizations shift toward building omnichannel campaigns in order to give prospects and customers a consistent multichannel experience, the inbound team is forced ever-closer to the marketing automation team in the demand generation group. If you leave your inbound and social team in the digital and content group, ensure they develop a very tight relationship with the demand generation team, as they will be working together more and more.

The Traffic Manager

I’m going to digress for a minute here, but I assure you this will have implications for the organization of the content group. Let’s talk about the life of an asset — a piece of content. You find an SME in the firm to write up a nice whitepaper (WP) and you put it on the website and you’re done, right? Not so fast …

target_marketing_blog_part5_3Developing the core content, the basis for the subsequent assets, is probably a third of the battle. These days, extracting the value from the core content probably looks more like this:

  1. Develop the core content and produce the first asset (a WP, for example).
  2. Write a blog post to promote the WP.
  3. Write email copy to promote WP with outbound email channel.
  4. Write landing page (LP) copy.
  5. Write ad copy if you are going to do some display ads or paid search to promote WP.
  6. Get a creative designer involved to add the graphics and images for all of the above …

QR Codes Can Make Your Direct Mail More Effective

Direct mail is an effective way to reach prospects and customers. But, we have to admit that both customers and prospects are becoming more mobile and therefore digital content is becoming more important

Direct mail is an effective way to reach prospects and customers. But, we have to admit that both customers and prospects are becoming more mobile, and therefore digital content is becoming more important. QR codes are simple 2D barcodes that can be scanned by a smartphone or tablet to create a bridge between direct mail and digital content. To be effective, QR codes need to be easy to scan, so make sure that you leave room for the barcode.

Your direct mail is already in your customers’ hands, which means you have their attention. It’s the perfect opportunity to encourage further engagement by using a QR code to invite them to connect with digital content. You want your QR code to work for you—simply linking to your homepage isn’t enough. Your code needs to offer something valuable to your customers/prospects that will catch their interest and encourage them to get in touch, make a purchase, sign up for information or come back for more.

Here are five examples of ways you can use QR Codes to add value for your customers/prospects:

  1. Link to exclusive or time-limited content.
  2. Provide specific information about you, your products, or services.
  3. Connect your customers/prospects with media such as a video or gallery.
  4. Direct your customers/prospects to a landing page, email sign up form, or even dial a phone number.
  5. Send out special offers such as coupons or discounts.

As with any kind of marketing campaign, there are do’s and don’ts of using QR codes. Knowing them will help you make the most of your QR codes. Check out four of each listed below.

QR Code Do’s:

  1. Offer An Incentive to Scan
    QR codes are a fast and easy, but people still need a good reason to grab their phone and scan your code. Make sure scanning the code is worth their while by offering them information or an offer they won’t want to miss.
  2. Make Your Destination Mobile Friendly
    When scanning customers/prospects will need to use their smartphone or tablet, so make sure the place they’re headed to is optimized for mobile viewing. If you don’t, they’ll click away and your opportunity will be lost.
  3. Include a Call to Action
    Treat your QR code as you would any marketing materials, with a clear call to action that lets your customer/prospect know what they should do next, and why. Tell them why they should scan your QR code, for example “scan here to receive your free gift” or “scan to watch our two minute marketing 101 video.”
  4. Test It
    Just like everything else you send out, your QR code tells your customer something about your business. That means that as well as offering value and being convenient to use, the QR code destination needs to work, too. Make sure it’s tested for functionality, quality, and mobile compatibility before you send it out to your customers.

QR Code Don’ts:

  1. Assume Your Customers Will Scan the Code
    It’s unlikely that your customers/prospects will scan your QR code just out of curiosity. It’s up to you to encourage them to scan the code by making doing so just a little bit irresistible.
  2. Link to Information That Could Be Easily Found Elsewhere
    If your QR code links straight to your homepage or Facebook profile, you’re not making the best use of it. Use it as a shortcut to something informative or exclusive.
  3. Make It Hard to Scan
    QR codes need to be as easy as pie to use. That means making them at least an inch square, clearly printed and positioned so as to be accessible.
  4. Waste It
    QR codes provide you with an opportunity to track customer/prospect activity and find out what they like and respond to. By tracking how customers/prospects respond to your QR codes you can see what works best and what doesn’t. This information will help to make your next QR code campaign even better.

QR codes are an effective way to make your direct mail more interactive, connecting your customers with digital content that they won’t want to miss. When you bridge the gap between offline and online marketing you provide a better experience for your customer/prospect. This in turn will provide you with better results.

Are Your Emails Helping Your Company Grow or Maintaining the Status Quo?

It is 2013. Do you know where your emails are? Or, more importantly, do you know what they are doing? Take this mini quiz. If you don’t have the right answers, then you need to revise your email marketing program

It is 2013. Do you know where your emails are? Or, more importantly, do you know what they are doing? Take this mini quiz:

Our emails …
A. … motivate our customers to visit our store and/or site.
B. … provide timely information that our customers look forward to reading.
C. … desensitize our customers to our messages.
D. … create conversations on social networks.
E. … may or may not be doing the thing listed above. I just don’t know.

If your answer isn’t “A” and “B”, then you need to revise your email marketing program.

Companies Don’t Move Forward By Maintaining the Status Quo
Eighteen emails from multichannel companies arrived in my inbox before 9:30 this morning. Thirteen are from companies that I buy from on a regular basis. Five are from companies that I rarely shop. They all look strikingly similar.

Every one of the emails consists of a promotional offer with discounts ranging from 15 percent to 50 percent. Some include free shipping as an added bonus. If I were identifiable as a discount shopper, I would expect all of my emails to be sale driven. But, I’m not. I am a category seasonal shopper. My purchases are from specific categories for every company that sent me an email this morning.

So, why don’t they send me emails based on my buying patterns? It requires a new model and more work. I’m not suggesting that the marketing teams are lazy. Most of them work very hard. The problem is that they are working so hard, doing what they have always done, that there isn’t time to find better ways to market to their customers.

What Difference Does It Make?
Historically, a successful campaign delivered a 2 percent to 5 percent response rate. Today, these numbers are declining for most companies. Getting a 0.5 percent response is considered successful by some marketers. Technically, they are right. Email marketing is so economical that an extremely low response rate still generates a profit.

Diminishing rates continue their downward trend until something makes them change direction. External forces are working to accelerate the decline. Email volume for second quarter 2013 is up 17.9 percent over the same period in 2012. (Source: Experian Marketing Services “Q2 2013 Email Marketing Bechmark Study,” opens as a pdf.) The increase is projected to continue.

And then there is that pesky email fatigue issue. When people are bombarded with the same message from so many sources, they become desensitized to the offers. They don’t even bother to open the emails most of the time.

The only way to reverse the downhill slide is to change the email marketing model. It needs to shift from generic promotional messages to customized personal ones designed to appeal to specific individuals. The tools and tactics used by direct marketers to target catalog buyers are effective with a little tweaking. Get started by:

  • Re-evaluating the effectiveness of your email marketing program. Running on auto-pilot works for a while, but regular maintenance and updates are needed for improvements.
  • Identifying email subscribers by type. Are their purchases seasonal, category, discount or a combination of all three?
  • Creating and testing targeted emails. Be careful that you don’t overshare what you know about customers. Too much information is creepy.
  • Adding “how to” emails in to the marketing mix. A reputation for providing helpful information encourages people to open your emails.
  • Optimizing emails for individuals and search. Changes are happening in the search arena that make optimization necessary on all digital content.