Branded content: Shoveling sh*t or fostering solutions?

by Heather Rast |

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 the Author

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.