5 Guiding Principles for Doing Branded Content Right
How to walk the line between maintaining your audience’s trust while also satisfying your clients’ needs.
We’re living in the age of content; it touches most every facet of our lives. It’s the conversation you had with Alexa this morning, the Apple News story you skimmed on your way to work, the mid-meeting Twitter notification, the professionally shot five-second Instagram boomerang of you and your friends at the pop-up shop you swung by after work.
More content means more content creators. As the demand for content swells, standards for quality remain as important as ever, and standing out becomes more difficult. Audiences, both inundated by content and content creators themselves—posting their own Tweets and Instagram Stories throughout the day—are becoming savvier at filtering what is relevant and interesting and worthy.
To tell their stories in this environment, brands want to enlist storytelling experts—and journalists are the ultimate storytellers. My years as a magazine editor—at Travel + Leisure magazine and New York magazine—and as a freelance travel journalist have taught me that journalists do more than write copy. We’re truth-seekers, naturally inquisitive and skeptical, guided by an established set of ethics that, among other things, require transparency, presenting painstakingly researched facts and acting with integrity, independently of conflicts of interest.
Journalists naturally put audience first and brand second, meaning there’s an inherent tension between journalism and marketing—and therein lies the magic. Journalists do in-depth research and weave the interesting information they find into a compelling story—a story audiences know they can trust because it’s told from a place of sincerity, not self-interest.
At M Booth, we’ve built a creative team of journalists, photographers and designers equally adept at creating cross-platform branded content for the world’s largest vacation exchange network, RCI—who has been at the forefront of this model for more than a decade—as well as a major healthcare company, a large financial services company, a food distributor and other brands. It’s exciting to see the world catching on: Just look to the recent proliferation of other content studios founded inside traditional publishing houses, such as Condé Nast’s 23 Stories (now CNX) and T Brand Studios from The New York Times.
Below are our five guiding principles for taking a journalistic approach to branded content creation.
1. Believe in what you’re selling. For RCI, we make a travel publication called Endless Vacation magazine, which spans print (circulation: 1.7 million), digital and video. As a concept, vacation has broad appeal and is a pretty easy sell—after all, who doesn’t want to slip away from their office and into a pair of flip-flops on the beach?—but vacation ownership, or timeshare, has a trickier reputation. My background in luxury travel magazines made me a skeptic at first. The key to believing in the product and being able to craft a compelling story around it was education.
The more deeply I dug into what timeshare actually is and how it’s evolved over time, especially in recent years, the more I understood its appeal. What sold me on it is the unique pairing of the comforts of home with resort-style amenities, and the lifelong commitment to travel. From there, the narrative of putting people on meaningful vacations flowed easily from my trust in the product. For our healthcare and food distributor clients, it was all about telling the stories of two brands who don’t just talk the talk about being a force for positive change in the world, but who make impacts through philanthropic and environmentally-friendly projects, respectively, that measurably improve the wellbeing of children in need and the planet. In other words, it’s about finding the nugget—big or small, it doesn’t matter—that resonates with your personal values, and using that to motivate you to promote your client’s agenda in a genuine way.
2. Provide real value. Journalists are experts at becoming experts very quickly. We’ve been tasked with writing bylines on subjects as technical and specific as AI robotics in warehouse distribution systems. The story was written by a journalist who didn’t know anything about the topic and yet needed to write a piece from the point-of-view of a C-suite executive in the field, without an interview. We were able to pull it off because we assigned the story to a journalist who knew how to research the topic in a limited timeframe and essentially become an expert—at least for the sake of the article.
For Endless Vacation, our team of journalists and photographers are already travel experts, but we don’t stop there. We traipse all over the globe to the destinations we cover in the magazine. We talk to chefs and eat at their restaurants, lace up our hiking boots to test out nature excursions, navigate airports with our little ones to find out what strategies work best for families. All the time, asking ourselves: Is this good enough for our readers? If it’s not, we don’t cover it.
If there’s something readers need to be aware of about an experience, we’ll tell them. Our audiences know this about us. Endless Vacation readers know who our editors, writers and photographers are—our bylines, where we travel, what we stand for, that we’re talking directly to them—and this makes us credible and makes our content highly actionable. A whopping 30 percent of RCI subscribing members have taken a vacation based on the magazine’s recommendations, and nearly half of RCI subscribing members look for more information about a destination or resort (source: Endless Vacation Reader Survey, 2016).
3. Make considered judgement calls. There’s an art to evaluating your clients’ different needs, and to making decisions when moments of tensions arise between those needs. When writing bylines for the financial services company or the robotics company, for example, we recommend mentioning the subject’s company only once or twice and linking to the company only in the bio. Readers see through promotional content and can spot a puff piece. But if you offer them something of legitimate value, they’ll do their own research into your client’s brand and start to look at them as a trusted thought leader. And that passion for the brand is more valuable for clients in the long-run than the immediate boost they may get from mentioning their work ten times in a piece of content.
4. Build trust with your audience by sharing values. People want to be inspired, not sold to. We create another magazine, RCI Ventures, that’s distributed at RCI’s affiliated resorts. The magazine aims to strengthen RCI’s relationships with these essential stakeholders and position RCI as a thought leader in vacation ownership. To do this, we make sure the majority of the magazine provides resorts with heavily-researched, timely and relevant content that’s important to them. For example, an infographic detailing industry changes; an in-depth exploration of an up-and-coming destination with great opportunities for the industry; or a story on the tech advances that will impact vacation ownership in the coming years, such as 5G or voice assistants. Although these articles do draw on the expertise of RCI and the affiliates themselves, they also rely on independent sources and avoid directly selling to readers.
Other brands doing this well are the female-centric coworking space, the Wing, with its magazine and podcast, No Man’s Land, and Away luggage’s Here magazine, which publishes articles like “Why Hydra’s Art Scene is a True Greek Revival,” instead of selling suitcases, providing substance to readers and offering a sense of community that fosters lasting retention.
5. When you do sell, be transparent. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience (a wise former colleague once told me to assume readers are 10-percent smarter and 20-percent more experienced than you are). One of the ways that Endless Vacation magazine sells transparently is by keeping a very clear division within the sidebars that appear at the end of each article and recommend where readers should stay in that particular destination. They list the RCI affiliated resorts near the destination as well as non-affiliated resorts, and label each accordingly. Readers who want to book at an affiliated resort can, and those who aren’t able to still have the tools for taking a vacation there. This clear delineation between sales content and journalistic content encourages trust and loyalty with our audience.