Branded content is not a new phenomenon.
Many years ago canned soup manufacturers understood that putting recipes on their labels helped further engage their customers; tyre manufacturer Michelin realised that content could play a part in its marketing mix when it launched a hotel and restaurant guide in 1900; and Pan American World Airways launched the first in-flight magazine in 1947.
In this pre-digital world, however, brands were static. All touchpoints were controlled by the brand manager, and marketing was predominantly about purchasing media and ‘interrupting’ consumers.
The new digital landscape has changed everything. Now brands are alive. Distribution is open to everyone, all the time.
The touchpoints are co-created and mostly out of the brand manager’s control, and a small number of people can make a vast amount of noise about a brand.
In this new digital world, people are much better at filtering out things that aren’t useful or relevant to them - it’s easy to fast-forward through ad breaks, avoid pop-ups, ignore MPUs and so on.
People have continuous ongoing conversations: they talk, they listen, they share. Branded content can become part of these conversations by giving people something of value.
If brands can create content that engages people, they will listen to it, remember it, download it, share it, post it, stream it and recommend it.
And because these conversations happen all the time, brands need to move from telling one big story a year to continual engagement - telling multiple stories all day and every day.
All of these should add up to something - to a coherent view of the world.
And in return for giving people something of value, brands get back more than simply loyalty.
They get affinity, engagement and - in a world where distribution is ubiquitous - advocacy.
But there are some key principles brands need to consider when creating branded content:
The opportunity for market research is so much richer in the digital world.
Before creating content, brands need to understand what people are talking about in a particular market, where they’re talking about it - be that on Facebook, Twitter, message boards, in the real world and so on - and what these people are like.
Only then can they understand what content might engage these people and how the brand can join their conversations.
2. Target influencers
In the digital world, a small number of people can create a vast amount of noise about a brand, and understanding this is key to creating effective content.
Marketing is no longer simply about target audiences: it’s about target influencers.
Brands need to think about how their content will play to these influencers and what their incentive will be to shout about it.
In some cases influencers can actually be brought into the creative process, bringing their audiences, credibility and authority with them.
3. Make it participatory
In the digital world, content can be co-created and participatory. Brands can allow people to take part in, shape and tell stories in their own way.
They need to consider what the incentive is for people to engage with content, why they’d be inclined to share it or recommend it and quite often build that dynamic into the content itself.
It’s why we’ve seen such a rise in gamification, because it allows people to actively participate in a brand’s content.
4. Make it travel
The starting point for branded content shouldn’t be, "What shall we put on Facebook?" or "What shall we put on YouTube?" but rather an understanding of what people are talking about and what content has the potential for engagement with a certain group.
Only then should brands consider which are the appropriate channels for distributing the content, to give it the best chance of engagement and advocacy.
5. Understand the importance of tone of voice
Tone of voice is all too often reduced to three truisms on a PowerPoint slide: honest, trustworthy and clear - as if any brands would seek to be dishonest, untrustworthy and confusing.
In the digital world, with so much noise, so many different things competing for people’s attention, so many different channels of communication, and the fact that brands are no longer in total control of the distribution of their content, tone of voice is more important than ever to ensure a brand maintains a coherent view of the world.
A brand needs a detailed tone of voice guide that enables it to speak consistently across all of its content, across all channels.
Today, canned soup manufacturers continue to put recipes on their labels, the Michelin Guide is still going strong, and almost every airline has an in-flight magazine.
But in the new digital world the opportunities for brands to use content to engage with customers are greater than ever before.