‘Jaded old veteran’ Chris Maillard takes elements of the US-media to task for their ‘deeply silly’ approach to branded content and offers a set of six simple rules to help editors avoid tortured soul-shredding creative angst.
The Americans have finally discovered branded content. They think they invented everything, of course, so they’ve come up with their own rather clumsy terms for it like ‘native advertising’ and ‘content marketing’ and as they do, they’ve ignored what everyone else has been doing for years, and they’ve managed to get in a right mess.
As Peter nicked a bit of Oscar Wilde for his recent and rather good Apple Newsstand piece, I’ll steal some Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”
Surely it’s not that complicated? Branded content isn’t too hard to get your head around. Apply a set of simple rules (I’ll get to those in a moment) and you’ll be fine. Don’t mess your readers around, give the client what they were promised and it all works. Doesn’t it?
But over the Atlantic it’s all got deeply silly. The American media, after all, does bloated arrogance better than anybody else, as you’d expect from the country that brought us Bon Jovi, ‘World’ Series baseball and a million chrome-encrusted Chevrolets.
Vanity Fair, the New York Times and other bastions of the US press place an almost religious emphasis on the division between editorial and advertising. Indeed, the more uptight media types sometimes refer to it as ‘church and state’. Advertising, as they see it, is grubby morals-free money-raking while editorial is crusading Watergate investigations, incorruptible critics and holier-than-thou opinion pieces. Ne’er the twain shall meet. Branded content? Over my dead body.
“…bastions of the US press place an almost religious emphasis on the division between editorial and advertising”
Get over yourselves. It’s going to happen, and it is happening now. But in their amusingly insular way the Americans are still getting it horribly wrong and falling into the same traps the rest of the world’s publishers sidestepped years ago.
Here’s a good example. You’ve almost certainly heard of The New York Times’ Snowfall feature – a brilliant, innovative way to make a single feature into a multi-media extravaganza that took months to build, about a day to consume, flowed like lumpy porridge and ate up huge amounts of personnel and budget. Well, they were so impressed with themselves that they’ve carried on doing these monster projects. And the latest one is (horror!) branded content. Or sort of. This AdAge piece explains how that came about.
If you read that piece as a jaded old branded content veteran like me, a couple of things stand out. First, this: “…the Times approached several companies about advertising… [the client] signed on and was kept in the dark about certain elements of the story: The company didn’t initially know when it would be published, what it would look like, or even exactly how the ads would render.” Now is that arrogant or what?
Also, this: “The story’s preparation and presentation took several months to produce… About four weeks before the story was to be published, the Times newsroom told the advertising department that something in the vein of ‘Snow Fall’ was on its way.” Now is that stupid or what?
By the way, this huge, massively resource-intensive feature wasn’t blowing the lid off a major global disaster or political scandal; it’s a profile of a veteran jockey. Imagine ‘The Lester Piggott Story’. Over 10,000 words and a photoshoot. Oh yes.
“Imagine ‘The Lester Piggott Story’. Over 10,000 words”
And here’s another example, from the Editorial Calendar blog. The headline, ‘Editors Battle Advertisers for High Ground’ doesn’t bode well. On the plus side Paul Conley, the consultant quoted, has tried to come up with some rules for branded content. However, it’s all still about that mythical battle again: “The worst piece of news I have is that that the battle for the integrity of the editorial stream is lost”, he moans. Oh, for Christ’s sake.
He does come up with a set of rules. And the first three aren’t too shabby at all. But the fourth. What? “4. The editorial staff must not work on the product. “There are a lot of really talented people that can help advertisers. Find them. Get a freelance stable and find out which ones will work with advertisers. Segregate your freelance staff.” Er, hello?
Again, the Americans seem to equate branded content with some sort of infectious disease. It’s the smallpox of publishing. Quarantine it, quick!
Sorry, this is wrong. It’s a central part of your product. And yes, you’re making a product. You’re selling content to readers; you’re selling those readers to advertisers. Your newspaper, magazine or website is not a piece of art or a great work of literature, it’s a commercial operation in exactly the same way as the local pizza takeaway, car mechanic or pest control business. What’s more, your business is struggling. People aren’t paying for those readers like they used to. Time to offer a Pepsi with that pizza, a cheap oil change or a two-for-one on cockroach splatting. That’s where branded content can come in handy. So…
Rule 1: Get Over Yourself
Stop being pompous about your editorial. That doesn’t mean give away the readers’ favourite columns or the trusted independent reviews; it does mean don’t be needlessly precious. Do you really like those fluffy lifestyle filler pieces so much that you’ll waste weeks fighting for their ‘editorial independence’? No.
Rule 2: Be Proactive
Or ‘get your revenge in first’. This is going to happen. Embrace it, or at least think hard about how you, as an editorial person, would like it to work. If you hate the whole idea, fine. At least think about the least worst scenario. What are you prepared to compromise on? And what would work well, or have minimal impact, with a client’s name on it? Many pieces wouldn’t actually be harmed at all by a bit of branding. Some might even be lent a bit of reflected credibility from a decent brand name. Plan ahead.
Rule 3: Be Honest
Tell the sales team exactly what’s on offer. Tell the client exactly what they’re going to get. Tell the readers exactly who’s paid for what and why. Be transparent, label everything clearly and boldly, don’t fudge. The only way that readers will feel cheated is if they don’t know what’s going on. It’s one of the few cases where you’ll go back to a client and ask them to make their logo bigger. Get everything in writing and make sure you stick to the plan; don’t let slippery salespeople run riot and change the rules as they go along. Be consistent and be straight with everyone.
Rule 4: Keep Up
Things change; new technologies, streams and formats are popping up all the time. This gives more opportunities to maximise the reach of your content, and branded content too. Can a sponsorship or branding deal help you get into a new market or format? Keep looking for opportunities where a client can help springboard you ahead of the competition, and keep your eyes open for new ways that you can make a client/content link work.
Rule 5: Reap The Benefits
Yes, business is bad for many. But don’t take on a load of extra work without grabbing a bit of that extra income as editorial budget. The more weasel-like breed of publisher might tell you it’s free money; it isn’t. Doing good content costs, and in most cases the client approval process will eat up time and personnel too. If you rush out poor branded content because you haven’t allocated extra resources the client will spot this. They’re not stupid. They won’t pay, and they won’t come back. It’s easy to get hustled into short-term penny-pinching but it’s not good commercial sense.
Rule 6: There Is No Rule Six
Don’t overcomplicate it. That’ll do. There’s no point in getting your knickers in a twist about branded content and coming up with a 140-page strategy document. Just do it and trust your good sense. Does it feel wrong? Dishonest, untrustworthy, slippery? Then it is wrong. That’s all there is to it.
Unless you’re American, of course. In which case, you can carry on experiencing tortured soul-shredding creative angst over branded content for as long as you like. The rest of us will just point and laugh.
PS: This post was brought to you by Lavazza™ coffee, Be™ broadband and WriteRoom™ software. Now that didn’t hurt, did it?
Chris Maillard is an independent content consultant with a long and often ‘surprisingly successful’ magazine career that includes launching BBC Top Gear magazine, editing Maxim, founding and editing Restaurant magazine. He has tackled on- and offline content projects for clients from BMW to Tesco on behalf of agencies like John Brown, Redwood, TMW and the Telegraph Group. Chris has won several awards including PPA Magazine of the Year, Editor of the Year and Launch of the Year. He is also astonishingly modest.