The concept of branded content isn’t new; even as the pervasiveness of the digital lifestyle has given rise to the social consumer to provide brands with new channels of access, delivery formats, and greater self-initiated reach. Some familiar examples of branded content include:

  • The monthly mini-mag from your local health system featuring health tips and service spotlights/success stories
  • The magalog from your daughter’s favorite clothing store that shows how to pair pieces for a super-awesome wardrobe
  • The quarterly newsletter from your investment company discussing savings ideas and ways to cut expenses
  • Recipes inside packaging or soup labels
branded content

Help me. Don't sell to me.

The underlying premise is that brands using these branded content tactics are an authority in their space, and as such, have important, useful information to share with you (sell to you), their valued customer. I say most of it is still self-serving, recycled and expected hogwash that does little for my trust factor.  Indeed, there are exceptions.

For the most part, though, there’s so much poorly disguised “help” being thrown at us consumers that branded content is really starting to sound like noise. Dare I say, in an effort to drive awareness, revenue, and even entangle the customer, many brands are just trying to distract us with semi-shiny objects rather than deliver content or insights of any substance.

I mean, I don’t see how Levi’s streaming concert on Facebook helped me, a jeans wearer, one iota.  And what do all those “likes” mean if they were issued simply to gain access to the show?  Not sure the term “conversion” can apply, except in the loosest sense. Consumers place far less weight on a “like” than us marketers do.

Now this would be hawt!

But if a jean manufacturer fostered a community that did any of the following, I would get really excited:

  • Give instructions on how to hem my own jeans (or better yet, sell the perfect length for the 5’4.5″ woman) in that cool reuse-the-existing-hem way that my local Silver jeans merchant does (but only on Silvers bought in her store).
  • Tell me how to get that “lived in” look at home without ruining my $70+ investment.
  • Explain which color tops look best with which color of jeans washes.
  • Show me photos of real women with my body type, and how they put the ensemble together.
  • How to turn worn-out jeans into fashionable summer shorts without being an uber seamstress.
  • Choosing the best cut for your body type.
  • Review shapewear and how to look your best in jeans.
  • Review the best jeans in $40, $50, $60, $70 price point classes (including competitor jeans).
  • Teach me how to give jeans some class and style without looking like I tried too hard to dress up jeans.

Now, imagine if this goodness were offered free of charge in a user-friendly, accessible place designed with the intent that real users can create, augment, and otherwise add value to the material? If it was free from overt advertisement, instead simply managed for quality and civility? Sounds like a social business shift from The Now Revolution.

Um, hello. This is not all about you!

The question brand marketers should really be asking is, “Does content that’s good for our users really need to have a brand angle?” I think the answer is no.  People know when they’re being sold to instead of helped.  They understand the subtext in the term “Sponsored by XYZ.”

It’s okay for the brand to have a place at the table. It just shouldn’t be at the head spot, the server, the maitre ‘d, and the wine guy, too. Then it becomes less about the guests, and more about the host.  Trust me, the host will get props for organizing a great shin dig just by letting the guests and their conversations ebb and flow.

Advertainment = turn off

brand in control
Don’t toy with me.

I don’t believe branded content is the same as branded entertainment. And the suggestion that brands that entertain are more likely to be purchased seems off to me.  I think the real truth lies more in whether the brand personality, tone and voice, and messaging is approachable and something I can relate to, something that would make my day easier or more efficient.  Whether I’d want to sit next to her on an airplane were the brand human.  And to suggest that consumers have no issue with the fact that branded editorial content isn’t objective is as insulting as it is erroneous.

Yes, we see through your tissue-thin paper.  No, it’s not a win-win just because you got it in front of our faces.  The awareness comes at the expense of authenticity, and I just don’t respect nor trust it. Even if it comes with a great cookie recipe.

But I don’t think all branded content has to end up in that greedy-schmucky-self serving camp.  Here are my ideas for how you can tell if your brand is there, and what you can do to change it.  I know you smart readers will have great things to add.

Indications you might be missing the content mark

  • The sound of your brand’s own voice echoes throughout the community and online channels.
    • Idea:  If your content and marketing assets reflect few member comments, updates, trackbacks, shares, questions, or voluntary suggestions, the material might not be very meaningful to your audience.  Look again – is it all about you?  Of course, the silence could also mean the format wasn’t easily digestible or user-friendly.  It may have just been overlooked (information overload, or possibly indicative of poor championing).
    • Idea:  You could run a poll or host a focus group to better understand the most efficient means to reach or “be there” for your audience and discover what end-user pain points your brand can help eliminate through your expertise.  Your products/services may certainly be part of the solution, but not the primary ingredient.  Users will come to that conclusion on their own if you’re truly adding and creating value to the topic.
  • There are few or no mechanisms in place to allow community members or users to adopt, consume, and transform your content and ideas.
    • Idea:  Make downloads, source files, photos, graphics, poll data, etc. available for use and re-posting.  Doing so will encourage further discussion and improvement, and identify potential advocates (as well as dissenters – you should have a strategy for both).
    • Idea:  Bring people on board in an advisory or contributor capacity who have demonstrated real passion for your niche. Let them drive the bus.

Evolve content to a stronger footing

  • Give community members and users permission.  Encourage them to take what your brand offers and multiply, make it their own.
    • Even in this time of content scraping and digital free-for-all, there’s value in explicitly stating usage and participation rights.  Simple terms of use can remove any question about what’s allowable as well as any restrictions.
    • Give your audiences permission to interact with your brand and propagate its property and ideas. As so brilliantly described by Geoff Livingston last year, be sure to operate under standard laws of natural attraction to draw users into your brand circle.
  • Remember, the basic premise of branded content is the creation and widespread availability of useful material – for the people who need it.  Make the content informative, helpful, educational, and timely, and invite other everyday users to do the same and you’ll find my positive experience will align with your brand’s awareness and image goals quite nicely.

I might even buy something from you when I’m in the market.  Not because you told me so or suggested it, but because you offered something good to humanity.

Do you agree that a brand can put its customers interests at the center of communications and win?  Sure, it could be a hard sell to management. Or do you think it can’t be done? Shouldn’t be done?

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About Heather Rast

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/drbret Bret L Simmons

    Boom! Thanks for calling this shit out. Well done. Bret

  • http://twitter.com/drbret Bret L Simmons

    Boom! Thanks for calling this shit out. Well done. Bret

  • http://twitter.com/drbret Bret L Simmons

    Boom! Thanks for calling this shit out. Well done. Bret

  • http://www.all-themeparks.com Jenny Esponda

    I believe many big companies and even smaller ones are using these branded contents to attract their customers and consumers. These kind of tag lines and contents can really attract someone in a more pleasing way than any other. Its beneficial in the field of digital marketing to have such content with you.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Jenny, I'm not disparaging the basic notion of well conceived, smartly written content made available in digital venues. Where I take issue is when brands think any and all channels should operate as their own virtual billboard. Why ask me to join, then? It's not as though my interests and needs are considered.

      The brand that decides to build something useful which supports their general area of operation is the brand that's actually enlightened to the future of commerce. Hell, the brand doesn't even have to build it internally – if they discover it exists externally and then put resources behind supporting it and making strategic alliances, that works too.

  • http://www.experiate.net Paul Flanigan

    Heather,

    You post exposes one of the problems that brands face. What is marketing and what is branding? Marketing is allowing people to see a concert for free. Branding is helping you hem your jeans. Brands are defined by the impressions people have of them. Those impressions are created by the messages brands send out.

    That's the problem. Brands don't know the difference anymore. Sadly, I can't blame them too much. They're fighting for every ounce of attention they can get from you in an impatient, over-stimulated culture. They're competing with other brands. Levi's competes with Diesel now. At many times these are different demographics, but when there are 600 million potential new fans to reach on Facebook, demographics gets thrown out the window. You use the shotgun approach.

    Point being: You're very right. And I hope it changes. Or brands will congeal into these messy names that have no identity or value.

    (OMG was that apocalyptic!) :)

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      I think good branding paves the way – encourages acceptance – for marketing. It's like proving your mettle before asking for the job. We don't recognize it as a formal structure (and it's not a linear entry), but every touchpoint and exposure leads us down that path. Marketing without brand footwork leads to a closed door.

      I have trouble seeing the value in the Levi's example. But maybe I'm stumped by what I imagine was a very expensive endeavor, called successful due to Facebook likes. “Like” is Facebook's term, not necessarily mine. There should be a “Curious” button with no implied support tacked on.

      I think they're approaching the fight (to use your term) the wrong way. My attention really isn't so terribly fractured; I just reserve it for the brands that actually speak with me, as opposed to those that traipse irrelevant crap in front. They can't afford to focus talk strictly on themselves until much later in the game, in my opinion. That's where good content can make a difference – I can develop a true interest and affinity (and much more quickly) with the brand that addresses my entire scope of clothing/attire issues, as suggested in the post.

      It sounds like we're in the same place, sadly. Can you recall any examples you may have run across like Levis? I found a great deal of them in the apparel/perfume categories but didn't want someone to think the issue is exclusive to those areas.

      Thanks tons for your thoughts on this!

  • Chelsea Thomas

    Heather,

    This is a great post. This article brings about great points. If companies focused more on branded content (added value to their consumers beyond their general marketing tactics), this could do wonders for their extended exposure and their customer retention rates.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Chelsea, I just can't figure out if the brands that take this approach are terribly short-sighted (as to not see the potential in serving up/curating content with legs), or simply so stuck in old, “outbound” methods that they see their content as the new print ad. In either respect, what prompted me to write this post is my discovery that many agencies/boutiques/consultants actually think myopic branded content is a good idea!

      Getting in front of my face does not necessarily ensure a positive sentiment on my part. Even if it comes in the form of a glossy web site or postcard with a QR code. I are smarter than that (:-)

  • http://occamsrazr.com Ike Pigott

    As a brand, you have things you need your customers to know.

    As customers, there are certain things we'd like to know.

    The trick is in the balance — if you create the channel that has enough of what your customers need and want, they will accept some of what you'd like them to know. (It may even serve both of you.)

    What's in it for you?
    What's in it for me?

    If it doesn't fall in those camps, then it doesn't belong.

    Thank you, Heather!

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Nowadays when I see the blatant offenders (putting a dress on their shit and thinking we’re awestruck), I wonder just how far their self-serving preoccupation goes. Does it ooze over into their customer service policies? Pricing strategies?

      It bears mentioning that this mindset falls in line with the way many brands approach their social media strategy. Some consumers may go along with it for awhile, maybe because they’re hoping that the next post (or the next) will be something good that helps them. Not more product pimpage. The fact that most of us fail to get around to “unlike” or un-follow the perpetrators only seems to give their methods credence.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Nowadays when I see the blatant offenders (putting a dress on their shit and thinking we’re awestruck), I wonder just how far their self-serving preoccupation goes. Does it ooze over into their customer service policies? Pricing strategies?

      It bears mentioning that this mindset falls in line with the way many brands approach their social media strategy. Some consumers may go along with it for awhile, maybe because they’re hoping that the next post (or the next) will be something good that helps them. Not more product pimpage. The fact that most of us fail to get around to “unlike” or un-follow the perpetrators only seems to give their methods credence.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Nowadays when I see the blatant offenders (putting a dress on their shit and thinking we’re awestruck), I wonder just how far their self-serving preoccupation goes. Does it ooze over into their customer service policies? Pricing strategies?

      It bears mentioning that this mindset falls in line with the way many brands approach their social media strategy. Some consumers may go along with it for awhile, maybe because they’re hoping that the next post (or the next) will be something good that helps them. Not more product pimpage. The fact that most of us fail to get around to “unlike” or un-follow the perpetrators only seems to give their methods credence.

  • http://twitter.com/Ilana221 Ilana Rabinowitz

    Great article and I love the distinction you made between branded content and branded entertainment.

    Not only do I think a brand can put its customers interests at the center of communications, but it is the only way to market effectively.

  • http://www.secretsushi.com/ Adam Helweh

    Great post Heather. I believe this falls inline with what I call “Honoring your customer”. Align your brand with the association that it works to make your customer faster, better, stronger, etc… event if it doesn't boil down to a dollar sign.

    Thanks for the post.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Adam, it's so gratifying to read your words here. I've worked with a client whose focus was strictly on the here and now, short-term value each prospect and client presented. Anything “extra” to try to build repeat consideration or lasting positive affinity was kicked aside. “Good enough” was the mantra. It nearly killed me.

      When you're in the service business – and I believe we all are – the dollars will come when you focus on delivering the right solution to the customer's problem. Sometimes the right solution is a free tool or the number of the guy down the street. People don't forget that kind of integrity and honesty.

  • http://jobspert.com/placement-papers/ John Papers

    The article on the whole was good but i personally feel it should have more precisely written, any ways thanks for your words.

  • kir123

    Heather,

    This is a great post. This article brings about great points. If companies focused more on branded content (added value to their consumers beyond their general marketing tactics), this could do wonders for their extended exposure and their customer retention rates.
    The concept of branded content isn’t new; even as the pervasiveness of the digital lifestyle has given rise to the social consumer to provide brands with new channels of access, delivery formats, and greater self-initiated reach. Some familiar examples of branded content include:

    * The monthly mini-mag from your local health system featuring health tips and service spotlights/success stories
    * The magalog from your daughter’s favorite clothing store that shows how to pair pieces for a super-awesome wardrobe
    * The quarterly newsletter from your investment company discussing savings ideas and ways to cut expenses
    * Recipes inside packaging or soup labels
    The underlying premise is that brands using these branded content tactics are an authority in their space, and as such, have important, useful information to share with you (sell to you), their valued customer. I say most of it is still self-serving, recycled and expected hogwash that does little for my trust factor. Indeed, there are exceptions.

    For the most part, though, there’s so much poorly disguised “help” being thrown at us consumers that branded content is really starting to sound like noise. Dare I say, in an effort to drive awareness, revenue, and even entangle the customer, many brands are just trying to distract us with semi-shiny objects rather than deliver content or insights of any substance.
    It’s okay for the brand to have a place at the table. It just shouldn’t be at the head spot, the server, the maitre ‘d, and the wine guy, too. Then it becomes less about the guests, and more about the host. Trust me, the host will get props for organizing a great shin dig just by letting the guests and their conversations ebb and flow.

  • Scott

    Heather,
    Really a thought provoking post, but I'm just a pizza guy. I've been focusing my social media content on local events, local news, local school updates. My hope was to make our pizzeria the center of the local community. While I feel like that is content that is helpful to our customers, am I really just shoveling sh*t to sell pizzas?

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  • http://www.motivmode.com Lydia Fernandes

    Really loved this post, Heather.  Very timely…..great job!

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