As branded content becomes both common and coveted, the question arises: who should write it?
Clearly, there is no one right answer. That’s evident with even a cursory look at the raft of new content studios that have accompanied the rise of this discipline. Buzzfeed, which arguably has led the revolution, has been building a creative team that functions much like an ad agency, developing native content for advertisers that resembles content produced by the company’s editorial staff. At Condé Nast, on the other hand, the company has notably—and controversially—announced that magazine staff writers will be asked to add native advertising to their repertoire.
A dozen years ago, when I was helping to launch the Pearl Awards for the Content Council (then known as the Custom Publishing Council), I went to the dean of a well-known journalism school to see if he’d attach his school’s imprimatur to our awards show. “I’d love to do that, “ he said, “and I’m well aware that many of our graduates may someday find themselves working for custom publishers, but I’d be run out of town by my board if I were to suggest that this school align itself with any type of content that wasn’t ‘pure’ journalism.”
I recently hired one of that school’s graduates to write some branded content for a client. He did a fine job and seemed to have no qualms about crossing the church-state divide, but he did tell me a story that highlighted some of the problems publications are having as they adjust to changes in the content landscape—especially in terms of knowing how to approach the creation of this form of content.
At the consumer magazine where this writer worked, staff writers are routinely asked to write Web-based native advertising. Their goal in writing the content should be to please the advertiser, they are told, not to please the audience. It didn’t matter if anyone read the content, so long as the advertiser was happy and the space was filled. Since these writers are wired to care more about copy that pleased readers, writing the native content became a chore. Just getting it done was paramount, not getting it done right.
That approach shortchanges everyone. If the readers don’t get compelling content, the advertiser doesn’t get its money’s worth of clicks, buys or loyalty. And if the advertiser feels the branded content isn’t working then it won’t renew, and the publisher, who’s been counting on branded content as the big new revenue stream, is going to have a bad year.
The success of branded content really depends on the writing and is rooted in the writers’ understanding of what makes for successful branded content.
I asked some of the writers on our team if they thought that writing branded content was different from writing regular journalism and, if so, what that means. The consensus was that writing branded content is its own discipline and needs to be approached that way.
Unlike journalistic writing, branded content can’t just present the facts and let the reader draw conclusions—that doesn’t serve the needs of the sponsor who has a message to get across. But, at the same time, you can’t just put forth the sponsor’s message the way you might in an ad or a press release. The content needs to be informative and believable; useful and entertaining.
Both readers and advertisers need to be happy with the product. And that means the writers need to be steeped in what my writers call the company’s “DNA.” They need to deeply understand the sponsor’s products, services, messages and points of view, while also understand who the readers are, what information they’re looking for and what it will take to get them to accept the advertiser as the conduit for this information. It’s tricky, it’s complicated, it takes practice (and sometimes a good deal of negotiation with both advertisers and editors), and not every writer is up to the task.
It’s a skill worth pursuing though. More and more writers, seeing the burgeoning market for branded content, will work on honing their content marketing talents. After all, even the J-school that turned down sponsorship of the Pearl Awards a dozen years ago now publicly lists “content marketing” as one of the career paths open to its graduates.