AOL's Tariq Walker on the key ingredients required to make your branded content a success

Branded entertainment. Native advertising. Custom content.

Tariq Walker

No matter what you call it, one thing’s for certain: it’s here to stay. Advertisers are clamoring for it, consumers are engaging with it, and content creators from BuzzFeed to the New York Times are getting in on the game. What’s more, the average consumer doesn’t seem to mind if what they’re reading or viewing is sponsored by a brand: AOL’s own research shows that 61 per cent of consumers do not care if content is ad-supported, as long as it’s good.

Therein lies the rub: what makes good content... good?

There are some essential ingredients in the recipe for success – but first, I have to tell you the golden rule: you can never use the exact same mix twice. While it’s important to use the right ingredients, the real opportunity is in mastering and varying their role in the recipe. The same applies for branded content: you engage, inform and/ or entertain consumers in the right amounts given the dish you’re trying to create.

Which brings me to the first ingredient:

A well-defined mission: There’s no point in cooking if you don’t have the address to the potluck dinner. Before you can go deep on the content of the campaign, it is crucial that the planning team comes together to 1) discuss the mission behind the content, and 2) make absolutely certain that what you’re creating can please the palates of the both the advertiser and the consumer.

This requires clarity, honesty and collaboration of all of the various chefs in the kitchen (client, agency and publisher). Leveraging the insights and respective expertise of these parties will help ensure the content is relevant, entertaining and has the best chance to hit all of its various success metrics.

Relevance and believability: You may have the best Faberge egg repair shop in the world, but not every consumer in the world has a Faberge egg. In order for your message to resonate, it needs to address real-world, relevant situations that viewers they encounter in their everyday lives.

The content needs to be emotionally engaging and shareable, at the same time providing enough information to be practical and worthy of viewers’ time. In fact, our research shows that 64 per cent of consumers would be interested in learning more about a product if the branded content provided them with useful information.

The right audience: So you’ve gotten everything right so far: a well-defined mission, the perfect balance of relevance and believability, and now you have the best piece of branded content that a burger chain has ever seen. Now why would you go and show that to vegetarians?

Branded content should always be made with a target demographic in mind, and we should do everything possible to make sure it is reaching that audience. Like Odysseus and Polyphemus, this is a game of eyeballs. And in the end, what gets us the most value will be getting in front of the right eyeballs.

Measurability and iterative improvement: Even Shakespeare had a few first drafts (and an editor!). This is a fast-changing field, and there’s no set benchmark for what qualifies as a branded content home run. The measure of your success may be different in every case, as it’s based on a number of unique factors: views, engagement, shareability and more.

Of course, the big question in the end will always be: did your branded content accomplish what you set out to do in your original mission (see above if you’ve forgotten already)? Metrics will not only help you understand what worked and what didn’t, but will enable you to be even more precise the next time around.

Even in your most successful campaigns, chances are there is still room for improvement. Keeping a close eye (or two or three) on the numbers is the surefire way to keep learning and improving.

And that is really the secret sauce: a willingness to learn, to improve, to iterate. A willingness to take risks, both as an advertiser and as a creator. At the end of the day, branded entertainment is an art, not a science. There is no perfect, replicable execution.

Like any good book, movie, or meal, value is subjective and dependent on the audience. What I know for certain is that branded entertainment can only be valuable to an advertiser if it can bring value to the consumer.

Tariq Walker is VP, creative development at AOL On

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