The shifting sands of media publishing: branded content brings it back to basics

Branded Content Panel

The tectonic plates that defined the traditional media paradigm of brand/agency/publisher are shifting. This then requires a change in mindset from advertisers whereby they’re equally decisive and measured.

That was the conclusion of participants at a panel event hosted by The Drum earlier this week (July 18) that saw representatives from Deloitte Digital and The Washington Post advise attendees on telling their brand’s story in this increasingly complex structure.

Marketers are increasingly turning to branded content units emerging from the traditional publishing sector which help brands articulate their story in a manner akin to the editorial voice of said mastheads.

Such outfits are helping brands achieve levels of engagement that surpass their earlier paid-for mass media executions, but the practice brings with it new challenges where brands must appeal to sophisticated audiences.

For panelist Alan Schulman, chief creative officer and head of content marketing at Deloitte Digital, this involves marketers bringing new elements to their playbook, such as sound executions – or “brand harmonics” as he termed it. This can help brands “create content at the speed of culture” especially in the hyper-competitive attention economy of social media where there is only a short period to achieve cut through.

Denise Burrell-Stinson, Washington Post WP BrandStudio, head of storytelling-content director, adds: “The competition for attention, whether you’re a newsroom, a podcast organization, content studio, is a real race for attention … the way we’re all racing for attention is as competitive as ever."

"We’re now racing for attention on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, but one thing we have to think about is that the consumer is at the center of the narrative all the time.”

This has led some to question whether or not “traditional advertising is about to die” although panel-participant Rebecca Allen, global head of branded content at The Drum's very own Drum Studios, told attendees that while the traditional interruptive model has been in decline for some time, brands that produce content which can educate, inform or entertain audiences will succeed in engaging audiences.

Burrell-Stinson, backs up this assertion, she added: “We have found that in custom content, you have to be story-first, if you try and get into ‘brand messaging-first’ then you’re going to get into awkward, clunky ways of experiencing a brand, and people really will drop off, they have so many other options.”

“I think we’re in an evolutionary period, I think the content of the future doesn’t necessarily fit the formats of the past … I think we’re inventing new formats, and that’s where branded content comes along,” added Deloitte Digital’s Schulman, adding that the entire sector is still in an early experimentation phase of this journey.

However, in the rapidly evolving sector, the assembled panelists were in agreement in how advertisers can test the effectiveness of their ideas along with their execution.

“There’s a saying that you make small bets in earned, before you make big bets in paid,” commented Schulman. “So what we’re doing is to organically go and test high-level campaign concepts all the way down to offers at the lower of the funnel, test those organically in social (i.e. earned media) to see how those play out.”

Washington Post’s Burrell-Stinson believes that such evidence-based practice is now crucial to brand storytelling in an effective way, and this is a means that “requires teams that are literate and competent in a variety of disciplines.”

She also added that her team blends professionals with a variety of backgrounds such as those performance and analytics skills, to the likes of herself whose previous experience chiefly entailed editorial roles.

“We’re all going to extract different things from the data, so when it comes to my turn to input to the content creation process I can then understand what my part is,” she added. “But we all need to be sitting together to bring in that layered expertise.”

Such fundamental shifts in the marcomms milieu prompted some audience members to question whether or not this undermines the traditional role of the creative agency? Indeed, just what is the dynamic between the traditional creative catalysts of brand communications and the emergent players (such as brand content units) that profess to have a more intimate knowledge of their audience?

“That’s a really great question,” opined Burrell-Stinson. ”Agencies are agencies, they are the big-dogs … and help progress on some of the most important content studios (like the place where I work) and the brands,” she added, conceding that there is scope for the disruption of the agency/brand/studio model.

“We love to get together [with creative agencies] activate a campaign for a few weeks, wrap up the campaign report, and then say [to an advertiser] just look at this beautiful thing that we did … but one thing that a lot of content studios are trying to do is figure out how we can make that relationship a more sustained basis. “Maybe we’ll get together and do content for like six months, and we’ll have someone embed at the brand or the agency, and keep that dialogue ongoing,” she added.

“And we’ll say like ‘maybe we don’t know what we’re going to make, but we’re going to make it together' … maybe that does disrupt the traditional model, but I think it’s for the better as it helps all of us strengthen all of our relationships together, instead of going for ‘the one-offs’ [where separate campaigns are booked in relative isolation].”

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