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How publishers are getting around the branded content slump

How are publishers pivoting their branded content offerings in the pandemic?

As the pandemic cuts into publishers’ revenue streams from every angle, branded content divisions have gone from prize products to problem children. The Drum explores how the industry’s biggest content houses are circumventing the branded content winter.

2020 was supposed to be the year that publishers cracked branded content and diversified their revenue streams. Research from Polar claimed that global spend on digital branded content was to double from $7bn in 2018 to $13.4bn this year – but that hasn't quite happened.

Six months later and CNN, the Telegraph, and The Atlantic, among others, cut ’storytelling’ teams that produced branded content. Was this the canary in the coalmine or was the dip merely a blip?

The Drum talked to execs at the UK’s branded content body, Hearst UK, Jungle Creations, BuzzFeed and The Washington Post to determine the state of the branded content sector.

The decline

Andrew Canter, global chief executive of the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) admits that there was a ”significant downturn in marketing investment”.

The IPA saw a ”grave decline” in ad spend in Q2 and naturally, publishers were hit hard. Editorial redundancies are still mounting and the branded content teams once posited as the solution to publisher cashflow, weren’t fully spared.

Regardless, the opportunity remains. Canter says: ”Publishers are in a great position as they know their audience and have access to data insight [especially with the third party cookie decline] that can help brands achieve their objectives. Given that we are all spending more time at home and connecting digitally, we don’t want to be interrupted by advertising messages. This is where engaging and entertaining content can make a real difference for brands.”

And, the impetus to “move away” from traditional ad-revenue remains, especially after the slump wiped out a generation of media jobs. But, if publishers master their niche and understand their audience, they can make branded content with impact.

Canter says: “At the heart of branded content is great storytelling, of which publishers have a great deal of experience. However, brands are taking the content creation in-house, which may be reason why some are struggling.”

With the financial pressures on the industry “something had to give – marketing was a victim of this”.

Social distancing

Some sectors have ridden out the storm better than others. Canter says groups focused on short-form social content faired best. As did content creators and influencers with access to a significant audience. Recent Digiday research of brand execs found that a strong social media presence was the most important environment for their branded content to live.

That brings us to Dylan Davenport, managing director of The Wild, a creative agency housed within Jungle Creations (owner of VT, Twisted and other social giants ).

In April, it saw a 50% reduction in branded content spend but ”things levelled out from what was a pretty rocky start... [as brands] desperately looked for ways to reach their audiences”. Remember, OOH, cinema, sponsorship and experiential activity became unfeasible almost overnight. Production was locked down and many brand marketing teams were furloughed.

The Wild, in just its second year, has won accounts for Decathlon, Braun and Silver Spoon and appeased the MLB with a content series that went ahead despite the cancellation of the season. But it's leant into consulting and social too.

Born and bred in social, the unit has a natural advantage over publishing and agency rivals, Davenport says. ”Adam&Eve [his former employer] and all the other big traditional agencies not so long ago started investing in content and social teams but the truth is, they‘re always one step removed from what is going on in our space because the starting point is always what‘s the big campaign TVC.”

Social storytelling, he claims, comes second for these agencies. They can‘t easily access audience engagement data as easy as Jungle, nor are they attuned to the tweaks and changes of each platform.

And he‘s equally threatened and vindicated by Channel 4‘s recent move into the social branded content space (especially after it said the ROI was higher than the standard TV spot).

Regaining influence

Early in 2020, Hearst UK invested heavily in a showroom, an influencer academy and restructured its sales team.

Mark McCafferty, head of partnerships at Hearst UK says the main challenge has been getting up to speed, both for getting deals off-the-ground or turning out the work itself. “We have had to find ways to ensure we can react to short term bookings as well as ensure that we can still shoot video and print.“

It streamlined team and studio processes. Shoot timelines are shorter and there are always contingencies for at-home shoots, which are now becoming less common. Its output is in flux, too. It has produced full-on comms campaigns for clients – likely due to in-house marketing teams sitting on furlough, something The Wild had a short-term boom from too.

Now, for its branded content specifically, there’s been “a big uplift into Q4“. According to McCafferty, “there’s been an influx of briefs as clients want to be active for Xmas to recover dips".

Meanwhile, Ali Gray, director of branded content at Hearst UK, anticipates its biggest-ever quarter, with 40 videos in the pipeline. The team is busy, but the real graft came months ago, when it setup its remote Creator Network of editorial, influencers, photographers and video creatives.

There’s been a realignment around content that is useful and purposeful. A Hearst UK campaign for PayPal was driven by YouGov survey research that showed that only 9% of people said they wanted their lives to completely return to normal after lockdown.

Gray concludes: “With that inspiration, we built a campaign around highlighting the silver linings of lockdown.“

Average video completion rates were up from 17% (pre-lockdown) to 24% in Q2 and Q3. Gray uses this to evidence Hearst UK’s new approach to remote shooting was working.

Keep on buzzing

Casey McDevitt, commercial director for BuzzFeed Europe, says there was a broad shift to purpose campaigns.

“We worked with some of our closest partners to shift content strategy to focus on utility-based as a way to provide value to consumers during lockdown. For instance, during the food hoarding days, we leveraged our Tasty brand to make recipes based on common items in your cupboard, or simple four-ingredient meals.”

Recent quarters have been “much stronger” for one reason, “the content provides value for a consumer and it makes our audience feel better - it’s a win/win”.

It has both seen record editorial traffic and implemented worrying initial staff cuts (that were later parroted by many digital news outlets) during this time. The traffic helped generate audience insights for branded partners.

“We saw more and more people consuming content about television, so we sold sponsorships for a Lockdown Special of our Twitter show #What2Watch focused on the most bingeable boxsets. We saw how baking ingredients were running short in stores so we worked with a partner to provide baking ingredient substitutes for Easter bakes from Tasty.”

For What2Watch, a remote virtual studio replaced last series’ physical space. There's an inherent cost reduction here. “Ironically, some of these new methods are so time effective that we won’t ever fully go back to the old ways of working.”

On the challenges facing publishers, McDevitt said: “We weren’t immune to changes either - but it’s no secret that content is expensive to create. Businesses who were heavily reliant on branded content business were forced to make quick decisions. We’re fortunate that BuzzFeed has been diversifying our revenue for the past few years, enabling us to rely on our affiliate and commerce businesses as well as programmatic revenue increasing due to an increase in site traffic, to help us weather the storm.”

He concludes that he's seen record spend growth in FMCG, streaming services and grocery – now publishers like BuzzFeed await the return of travel and auto spend.

Trust is a must

Representing legacy media, much-respected The Washington Post trades on trust and storytelling.

Joy Robins, its chief revenue officer, who previously told The Drum that her focus had to move from sales in Q2. She says that there was a “short hiatus in the volume of branded content programs” but adds that “it wasn’t an altogether cancellation”.

The team became more of a consulting partner and fielded research to “help guide clients to what our audiences wanted to hear”.

Repositioning with a platform to inform the public how they are retooling during the pandemic helped drive utility and engagement, presaging “an enormous volume of content campaigns that launched throughout Q3 and are in production for Q4”.

Looking forward, she says: “We know that now more than ever consumers care about what a brand stands for and there is no better way to convey how brands are taking action than through powerful storytelling… creative storytelling will remain a thriving part of our business at The Post.”

Looking wider afield, both The Atlantic and The Telegraph cited ad-revenue struggles and a new emphasis on growing subscription businesses for cuts to their branded content studios. Does this brand ‘storytelling‘ have a future in quality, pay-to-play publishers?

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