The contents of your Christmas stocking and the current financial crisis say much about the opportunity for brands to create new content in 2012. Things have never been better (yes, your stockings are magnificent). There are shiny new screens (Kindles, tablets, smartphones, 3D TVs) everywhere, bringing with them opportunities for brands to create all kinds of new content. The good news for brands is that the expansion on the supply side of the market is happening at the same time as a slight retraction on the demand side.
Fearful of changing economic conditions, new and old media publishers are reducing their own editorial spend. This has the effect of lowering the barriers to entry for brands hoping to gain access to new editorial platforms and creative talent, creating a double whammy of opportunity for entrepreneurial advertisers.
Almost all media plans have some form of content on them these days, but most of it is only content in its very loosest form - it's the "bit of froth" on a media plan to make things seem more interesting. In this "look forward", we are concerned with content whose main purpose is to provoke an emotional reaction in an audience through watching, playing, interacting or listening. Its chief objective is to strengthen the relationship between a brand and its audience by creating material that people choose to engage and spend time with.
As advertisers increasingly look for ways to avoid being "turned off", content can be defined as the stuff audiences choose to engage with rather than being forced to experience through disruption or incentivisation, ie. a product-related competition.
Branded content should embody the values of the brand sponsor, but the central idea must be strong enough to be considered as a standalone piece of entertainment if the sponsor were removed. Not all brands will be able to benefit from the content opportunities in 2012; those that do commission successful content will most likely exhibit the following characteristics.
Content doesn't need to be the campaign "froth" any more; brands such as O2 and Cadbury provide examples of how advertisers can put content at the heart of multi-faceted campaigns with varying business objectives (including hard sales targets). Good content provides an opportunity to restructure a brand's relationship with its audience by giving customers access to stuff that wouldn't exist without the brand or, at least, they wouldn't normally have access to. The kind of stuff that makes a person like a brand more, buy the things it sells and stay loyal through thick and thin.
Willingness to collaborate
Producing good content requires a brand with high ambition and a brand prepared to put the needs of its audience at the heart of its creative. Right now, there are brilliant creative people working across TV, radio, digital, films, music and publishing who have a great understanding of the kind of things that your audience love, and they are looking for investment - there's not the money that there used to be on their side of the business.
Led by teams with a media insight
Because a good content idea is designed with the audience in mind, creative planners from the media industry are key to identifying new opportunities and creating a distribution platform. It's media thinkers, not account planners, who have the best grasp of your audience and how they are embracing new technology.
Being outside of traditional advertising agencies also allows these creative planners to have links to the people generating new content ideas in the digital world. These engineers often spark good creative ideas by simply opening up the possibility to do new things, by thinking of new ways to use platforms.
Inspiration can be taken from companies such as Zappar, which works with established content creators to find new ways of working by using augmented reality and product recognition technology - this can quickly change the way audiences interact with editorial and the real world.
Prepared to make mistakes
The marketer focused on creating brilliant content will be unafraid to take small bets. By exposing minor audiences to little pieces of content using small budgets, small bets become a low-risk way to develop and discover ideas without getting obstructed by risk aversion or excessive planning. This is an established format for technology and music companies to trial new content, but remains relatively rare among advertisers.
With so many opportunities to create discreet pieces of content digitally, why not invest in this pure form of research and development? Some ideas will fail; but when you do decide to invest in larger content initiatives, they will have a better chance of success, the idea will have an established fan base and you'll benefit from all the learnings you've made along the way. Small bets are a good way of making bigger returns.
So what will be the big opportunities for brands to use technology to create new ways of experiencing content?
The most significant opportunity for advertisers to create new content is linked to the second screen during dual-screen TV viewing. It's likely, though, that this will also be the biggest missed opportunity of the year. Broadcasters like to own and control all of the content linked to their programmes but, in the digital world, they can't. It works best connected to other stuff that may be uncontrollable. For the moment, this loss of control will make things too difficult for the stations to embrace. It's a massive missed opportunity as programmes such as The X Factor have a huge social media following during transmission that adds to the viewing experience.
But change will come in the future as technology providers such as Apple and Google begin to control the interface by which viewers watch TV, which will lead to questions over the ownership of supporting content ... but maybe that's for the 2014 essay.
Inspiration, for now, comes from the older media of music, books and newspapers, for whom the digital interface is massively changing the way that they are consumed. It's providing new formats. Look at Bjork, who has released her new album as an app, or how TS Eliot's The Waste Land has been reformatted for the digital world as an iPad app, or the re-release of A Charlie Brown Christmas for the tablet. In each case, something new and exciting has been produced by putting the audience at the heart of the consumption experience.
The major branded content opportunity in 2012 is for advertisers to mix technology with creative thinking to create groundbreaking experiences that offer something genuinely new to their customers. There are more screens than ever before to work with. All you need is ambition, a willingness to collaborate, to be unafraid of making mistakes and to put creative media thinking at the heart of your strategy.
Ben Kerr is the creative director at Drum.