NEW YORK, United States — My favourite branded content campaign of all time is Friskies’ “Dear Kitten” series. Created in partnership with BuzzFeed, each episode has millions of views on YouTube, one with a staggering 29 million.
True, I am a cat person. But that aside, this is a seriously entertaining ad that any cat lover or person who knows a cat lover will send to a friend. So why, when this kind of magic is possible, are so many branded content campaigns a failure? No matter what a publisher does with distribution, lousy content is never going to go as viral as an Instagram story of Rihanna applying Fenty body lava to her shoulder.
Branded content is a tricky proposition for both publishers and advertisers. These campaigns are expensive for publishers to create and what advertisers get in return is often something unquantifiable like “enhanced brand storytelling” rather than, say, sales. Branded content can work, but publishers and advertisers have to be honest about goals. And brands have to trust publishers to create stories and videos that they know will resonate with their audience.
The underlying case for branded content is only getting stronger. Use of ad blockers is on the rise, with 22 percent of desktop users and 10 percent of mobile users enabling them at least once per month, according a 2017 study by eMarketer. On top of that, more and more media is consumed on platforms like Netflix, which rely on subscription revenue and don’t have advertising. And since there have never been more pleas for attention across every form of media and consumers are more empowered to make informed decisions about purchases, with price comparison engines and user reviews just a quick Google search away, unique marketing that creates emotional connections is more critical than ever.
That said, not every advertiser should buy branded content. Sam Zises, founder and chief executive of marketing and design agency Learned Media, argues that it only works for Fortune 1000 companies, which can afford to place ads in many different channels.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a branded content editor who doesn’t have a complaint about brands not trusting them to do their jobs.
“The average consumer needs to see a brand 10 times in order to make a purchase decision,” he said. This could be a mix of Facebook and Google ads, branded content and traditional display ads. “I would never tell a small seven-store retail brand to invest [in branded content] because they’re not going to be able to create enough to create value.” (Jordan Edwards, the chief executive of online store ShopMixology.com, agreed. “There is tremendous pressure to follow trends,” he said via email. “We have not had success with branded content.”)
One of the biggest problems with branded content is measuring success. This is where advertiser expectations are often beyond what most campaigns can achieve. Advertisers buy branded content at a CPM (cost per 1,000 impressions) rate, which is the same as pretty much any other form of digital advertising. But branded content is less likely to drive immediate increase in sales, foot traffic or web visits. Consumers simply aren’t going to publishers to instantly buy the way they are with Google, and not all campaigns are designed to be easily shoppable.
“It’s difficult to get less sophisticated marketers to really understand that, because today, the young generation, everyone really wants immediate results. We live in a world of instant gratification,” said Zises.
Brands also tend to get in their own way. You’d be hard-pressed to find a branded content editor who doesn’t have a complaint about brands not trusting them to do their jobs and create content they know their audience will respond to.
Here’s a typical scenario: a publisher, desperate for a sale, will sell an advertiser anything they will buy. It’s often a piece of branded content that every editor on that website’s staff could tell you will not perform. (An agency can be useful in steering brands away from especially bad ideas.)
The publisher and the client, often through an agency, will go back and forth on the concept, with a heavy emphasis on visuals. The publisher will schedule a shoot and a rep from the advertiser or agency will show up and impress their personal taste upon the entire operation. (As one fashion editor said to me, “They show up and pick out the same going-out top they’d wear on Friday night, even if it has nothing to do with what our readers want to wear on Friday night.”)
The most important thing for brands to remember is they can get a lot of value out of these buys, if they put trust in their partners.
And then you end up with something that looks nothing like a brand’s typical output and has no chance of performing organically, meaning publishers buy all of the views or impressions guaranteed to the advertiser.
Eric Candino, the co-founder of Brandtale, which tracks social performance of branded content campaigns, said brands who do what their publishing partners recommend are in the minority of advertisers but that publishers are slowly gaining more control: “I think that advanced thinking brands realise publishers are the experts.”
If you browse through recent spring fashion branded content campaigns using Brandtale’s platform, you’ll see the social interactions are surprisingly limited. A NYDJ jeans ad on PureWow, where women talk about jeans that make them “look (and feel) chic,” has just 49 Facebook shares at press time, after having been up for five days and posted to Facebook twice (once on PureWow’s page and once on NYDJ’s much smaller page) and Twitter once, according to Crowd Tangle social share tracking.
This doesn’t surprise me, since this story’s chance of performing organically on social is low. Why would you share or engage with a story about women you don’t recognise simply wearing and talking about jeans?
But if you look at Brandtale’s list of campaigns with the most social interaction from this year (that’s post-Facebook algorithm change, mind you), you can see that the top performers are things that you’d want to watch or engage with on social media because they have innate audience appeal. Zales’s Disney engagement rings story (160k social interactions) is a no-brainer — women on Facebook love all things Disney and weddings.
Reebok and The Great Big Story’s gorgeous, unexpected video about the black belt martial arts fighter who also dances flawless ballet has 21,000 social interactions and 770,000 views because you’d want to watch this whether it’s an ad or not. The same goes for Tasty’s ad for Diesel, one of their typical hands-and-pans videos of a coffee cream-filled donut cake. Tasty has made hundreds if not thousands of videos like this, so Diesel knows it’s going to perform and people have a high likelihood of watching to the end.
The most important thing for brands to remember is they can get a lot of value out of these buys, if they put trust in their partners. “Better branded content will only come from brands that trust publishers,” said Candino. “I would say, be more open-minded in general.”
Editor's Note: This article was revised on 24 April, 2018. A previous version of this article misspelled Sam Zises, founder and chief executive of Learned Media, as Sam Sizes. This is incorrect.