Why branded content still delivers big

It wasn’t long ago that branded content was the shining star in many publishers’ portfolios. Other approaches to diversifying revenue have since entered the scene, but whilst it isn’t the new kid on the block any more, branded content has hardly retreated to the sidelines. In fact, two speakers at FIPP World Congress 2020 put forth this week, it remains crucial in the ongoing evolution of publishing.

Will Roth is Vice President of Content and Strategy at The Foundry, the award-winning custom content division at Meredith Corporation, the USA’s biggest magazine company, and Nicola Murphy is Group CEO at River, a successful content marketing agency based in the UK that has partnerships with many clients going back over a decade.

Both are committed to the notion that branded content can be transformative for their clients – even at the most strange and difficult of times for the publishing industry. Reflecting on the changes wrought by covid-19, they outlined some tips for publishers and talked about their own recent successes.


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The value of branded content today

At a publisher as big as Meredith, whose titles reach an estimated 95 per cent of American women, options for branded content abound – and there’s muscle to flex. Will Roth heads up a team of 75 people working in both the programmatic space and direct sales space, with access to a studio space, test kitchens, and experts covering everything from recipes to travel.

“A few years ago, native ads were the sexiest thing in the playbook,” said Roth. “Now, I still see it as a very important thing to offer to any advertiser. If ads aren’t custom, they won’t be as good.”

Similarly, Nicola Murphy is confident that River’s multi-pronged approach is successful because it delivers such value for clients. “Whether it’s print, digital, or social media, the stuff we produce really works for brands and their advertisers,” she said.

Value of engagement trumps the quantity of content you might be able to deliver for a certain value. What a quality site visit looks like is getting redefined.

Will Roth, VP of Content and Strategy, The Foundry

What clients want in a fast-changing world

According to Roth, The Foundry’s approach can be summed up as such: “never been done before and proven to work”. In other words, novelty is key to a good advertising campaign – but, informed by data and experience, the agency also has (and needs) a pretty good idea of what kind of content is going to work. “Our success is contingent on our own actions as consumers – we have to understand what sorts of formats are working unusually well in order to secure certain business,” he said. “First market opportunity is not the only factor.”

These days, Roth said, high quality engagement is what they focus on delivering for clients. “Value of engagement trumps the quantity of content you might be able to deliver for a certain value,” he explained. “What a quality site visit looks like is getting redefined.”

For example, page views of only three to five seconds do not represent strong engagement. “What we want is 60-90 seconds of linger time,” he added. “In the video space, we aim for a 60-75 per cent completion rate.”

In terms of editorial, Roth thinks it is important to maintain a strict separation of church and state. Nonetheless, one team’s work informs the other: “we like to take a look at what works editorially and apply it to the ad space. I think it’s a dangerous game to intentionally blur native ads/branded content and editorial too much. We’re not in the business of fooling our audience; we aim to deliver complementary branded content that is relevant. If we don’t do that, we miss the point.”

“There’s always a place for good content”

Nicola Murphy believes that even small publishers can gain from branded content, especially if they serve a loyal, niche audience. “Magazines are built around a value exchange,” she said. “Because when people are in a community of like-minded individuals – cycling, cooking, losing weight – they want to buy.”

“It doesn’t matter how big you are – whether you have a decent idea that you believe in, that’s what matters. Consumers aren’t one-size-fits-all. There’s a place for everything, a place for good content.”

It was with this in mind that River launched DARE, an online and print magazine on the newsstand, in collaboration with Superdrug. This was in 2018, a risky time when dozens of well-known magazines had already closed their doors. Yet having worked with Superdrug for 18 years, River by now was promoting all their services, from beauty studios and health to social media campaigns and podcasts. They felt they could step it up a notch.

“It was simple, really,” explained Murphy. “The magazine was designed to encourage footfall and brand awareness; sample and showcase free beauty gifts, exclusive products, and vouchers; and drive revenue from copy sales and advertisers.”

Acting as a commercial gateway for Superdrug, the magazine has been very successful, printing 100,000 copies per issue and selling between 65,000 and 80,000 of them. “It makes money for Superdrug and it makes money for us,” added Murphy.

Covid-19 and social issues: tuning in to audience interests

At River, explained Murphy, they work in an audience-focused way and practice a lot of social listening so they can provide the most up-to-date, hyper-relevant content. Evidently, 2020 has been challenging – but that didn’t stop River from making 25 new hires during the height of the pandemic. Arguably, the appetite for high quality branded content hasn’t gone away – it has just shifted to other platforms or media.

Reflecting this practice, Roth outlined the ways in which The Foundry has responded at lightning speed to the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest (Black Lives Matter, climate justice) to streamline their content with society at large. The division has built three core tenets into its every move: consider timing; commit to authenticity; and collaborate constantly. “Given everything that is going on, and how fast it changes, we need to constantly reevaluate insights to develop timely content that is not off-putting to an audience,” explained Roth. “It must resonate in the moment that we’re in.”

In such a high-stakes political and social environment, it’s important to prevent faux-pas: “We want to avoid anything that seems jarring, tone-deaf. Some of our ads might look out of place amongst the black square movement on Instagram, for instance. So we put a pause on certain platforms when they jar with an upswell of loud social justice calls.”

Wider societal shifts have changed how they vet influencers, as well. “There’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to the vetting process, particularly in the context of massive social unrest in the US,” said Roth. “I’m not recommending brands use only apolitical candidates, but it’s important to pick people you’re proud to partner with and share political values with. Advertisers don’t tend to be looking for combative voices, but strong voices.”

The same goes the other way around: influencers, afraid of a backlash, are increasingly vetting their partners and turning away brands that don’t fit their values. It’s another reason to stay abreast of wider social context.

“The world is in flux – embrace the new”

The pain of the past few months has precipitated another big change at The Foundry: the tone of its ads. The division has transitioned from “the hyper-aspirational to the real” – or, finding value in small moments in life. A successful example of this is in the division’s work with Johnson & Johnson’s baby products, which had begun pre-pandemic and was in the pre-production phase as lockdowns came into force.

“It was ambitious in scale, a huge multimedia campaign,” explained Roth. “We went on to have audio diaries, all sorts of innovative content with doulas, OB-GYNs involved, around the theme of being a new mum in a time of covid.” He also highlighted the bravery of the client for continuing through this tense time. “It was an incredible pivot in real-time,” he said. “We turned it around in about eight weeks.”

All these pivots haven’t been easy, though: “there has never been a set of challenges like the ones advertisers have faced over the past several months,” said Roth. “The world is in flux, so my motto at the moment is ‘embrace the new’.”

This goes for the ways they involve clients, as well. The Foundry has been encouraging its partners to partake in the creative process remotely, so they are still very actively involved in decision-making. “So we’re using apps like OpenReel to direct from afar rather than sending a team of 15 people across the world to shoot a 90-second ad,” said Roth.

Video plays a major role

On the topic of what kind of content works best, both Roth and Murphy agreed that video is the strongest player. “Video content designed for mobile works the best,” said Murphy. “It pulls about 80 per cent harder than other content. This is why VoD (video-on-demand) and TV are still so popular, because of a preference for video.”

River has also embraced TikTok: “It’s easy to imagine it’s just a channel for teenagers, but millions of adults use it and so there’s a surge of older consumers. We’ve also been starting to advertise on middle-aged radio channels like Heart.”

At The Foundry, “new platforms are opportunities,” agreed Roth. “We see something like TikTok and we think, ooh, we could make content there.” Nonetheless, format isn’t the only consideration. “About 60 per cent of our campaigns include video, but the most important thing almost all of them have in common is some kind of interactivity. We encourage people to lean in and play with our content.”

Consumers don’t actually care if the content is driven by a brand or not, as long as the content is good. So we can sell a relationship with WW because the audience trusts the value of the brand.

Nicola Murphy, CEO, The River Group

Branded content’s here to stay

To finish, Nicola Murphy again pointed to the value of unique, bespoke content and trust in brands as a driver for the success of River and for branded content in general. “Consumers don’t actually care if the content is driven by a brand or not, as long as the content is good,” she said.“So we can sell a relationship with WW because the audience trusts the value of the brand.”

As for The Foundry, for now, they are continuing to monitor the pandemic and respond accordingly, focusing on campaigns in which consumers are invited not to spend money, but to get to know a given brand. The idea is that this creates a funnel for when the economy improves and people have money to spend again.

“The value of a story well told won’t ever go away,” predicted Roth. “My money’s on branded content – today and down the road. It’ll be a very important piece of the publisher space, indefinitely.”

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