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  • Mark Hallander

10 ways to make terrible branded content

Branded Content is a commercial format, where the advertiser partners up with a publisher to create an interesting story. The premise is that the story follows the publisher’s editorial line. However, in working with the format, advertisers often fall into a common trap or two that heavily impacts the quality of the content. In this post, I will teach you how to avoid these traps.

#brandedcontent #nativeadvertising


Much inspired by Graham McDonnell’s keynote at Native Advertising Days in Copenhagen, I have collected some of the most common mistakes to avoid in working with branded content.


And to make it painfully obvious, these are the rules to follow, if you want to make terrible branded content:

  1. Have really vague expectations

  2. Begin without doing any research

  3. Ignore the value of involved stakeholders

  4. Fail to grab attention

  5. Ignore the basic narrative structure

  6. Position the brand as the hero of the story

  7. Use a lot of fragmented messages in the same story

  8. Decide on the format first

  9. Go really brand-heavy with the design

  10. Give your audience a reason to leave


1. Have really vague expectations

Have you ever worked on a campaign that rushed into execution without knowing what should be the outcome?


Well, aligning expectations early on can save you valuable time in the production phase, as you are making sure that the solution actually fits the need.


In setting up KPIs early on, it's vital that you are transparent about what the campaign solution can and cannot achieve for the client.


2. Begin without doing any research

It may not come as a surprise: Audience insight (or the lack thereof) can have a fatal impact on the content you create.


Doing proper research is more than just looking into data. It’s about understanding what makes your audience tick: What is their behavior and why is it so?


While thorough research and audience insights will contribute to the success of your creative work, they are by no means easy to establish.


Here's how to do it.


3. Ignore the value of involved stakeholders

Working with branded content, the value relationship between the publisher, the brand, and the audience is key.


Each stakeholder gets different value from the relationship: The publisher gets paid, the brand gets the story out and the audience reads an interesting piece of content.


The balance between them must be right. If you treat branded content as an ad (with heavy product-oriented USPs) it will hurt audience engagement and compromise the brand trust.


In other words; Keep the audience happy, and the two remaining parties will get more value from their efforts.


4. Fail to grab attention

We live in a world where information is very accessible. And when information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.


Branded content should grab our attention. It really boils down to the investment (typically time spend engaging with the content) vs payoff (the value added from that content). The user wants to be convinced that the reward they get out of the content is worth their time.


The most common way to grab attention is to work on headline conversion techniques. They include asking questions, using clarity, and integrating numbers with the promise of an explanation.


Get more tips from these 10 converting headline principles used on Social Media.


5. Ignore the basic narrative structure

In the modern marketing landscape, it is not only a challenge to convert users to our content, but it is also becoming equally hard to sustain their interest.


If we ignore the basic narrative structure, engagement will decrease. The structure typically follows an interesting dilemma (a hook), which is followed up by a challenge before the outcome is revealed.


And in this structure, advertisers typically want to position their brand as the hero of the story - be careful about that!


6. Position the brand as the hero of the story

In branded content, the brand obviously plays a central figure. However, the brand should not be the hero. That role is meant for your audience. The brand might be the reason that the audience (the hero) succeeds, but don’t confuse the two.


No one wants to read a branded article that talks about how cool that brand is. An inside-out focus is not that interesting.


Think of it as a first date: If you only talk about yourself, there won't be a second date.


7. Use a lot of fragmented messages in the same story

Brands that try to tell multiple stories within one piece of branded content often find themselves with long, very complex pieces of content.


The outcome is seen in engagement.


The audience should not see it as a chore to engage with your content. Too many fragmented messages make it hard to digest, so keep it focused.


8. Decide on the format first

It is not a coincidence that “story” comes before “telling” in “Storytelling”. You need to figure out what the story is first and then decide on how you should tell it.


There are millions of ways to tell a story. Different formats with different ways to engage your audience - from podcasts consumed on the commute to morning-focused articles in print, or attention-grabbing online videos.


Choose the format that fits the story and the reader.


9. Go really brand-heavy with the design

Branded content is commercial content. It comes as no surprise that the content, developed and published in partnership with a publisher, should not be filled with the newest corporate branding video in your company CVI.


The audience comes to the platform for specific content and hence, the design of it should live up to their expectations. Think twice before insisting on the brand-heavy design.


Otherwise, you risk coming off as too commercial, which negatively impacts the story.


10. Give your audience a reason to leave

Finally, if you are doing branded content online and want to convert some of the readers who have shown interest, it is appealing to implement a call-to-action.


For instance in the form of an exit link to your own website in the article. Just be aware that too many call-to-actions can be intrusive and you risk cannibalizing the reader's engagement if they leave without getting your story.


Instead of having 10 different links to secure traffic conversion, you should let the content do its job and give the users something valuable in the end. This might be more specific advice, interesting studies, a demo, or similar.


In conclusion

I hope you found some value in these best practices in developing less flawed branded content. The recommendations are pretty basic but easy to forget in day-to-day work, so keep them in mind. If worked on correctly, they will help you to stand out.

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