The Future of Branded Content Marketing – Part 3

- in 2015, ARTICLES

This is the third in a series of four articles I’ve been writing for the Cambridge Marketing Review that draws on my research from the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook series I curate in partnership with the BCMA. It shares part of my findings from industry experts around the world on what they expect to see change in the next five years:

The backdrop to this series is the prediction that branded content will be at the heart of every marketing strategy. However there’s still a lot of confusion about what it is, how you do it well, when and why. This is partly because the term ‘content’ is so all-encompassing, but also because of the array of competing terms being bandied about by practitioners, such as ‘branded content”, ‘branded entertainment”, ‘content marketing”, ‘brand publishing’ and ‘native advertising’. That’s why the Branded Content Marketing Association (BCMA) commissioned research from Oxford Brookes University in partnership with Ipsos MORI, from which comes the following overarching definition:

Branded content is any content associated with a brand in the eye of the beholder

This is a useful first step, although it does not explain the marketing problems that branded content seeks to solve, how branded content is different from advertising, or strategic considerations such as:

  • What kind of branded content is created (or co-created) by whom and for whom?
  • How is the audience built and its engagement managed?
  • How is content distributed (i.e. where in the convergedlandscape of earned, owned and paid media, and when in

    the customer decision journey)?

  • How is the success of each different part and their sum measured?

One of the reasons for using case studies in the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) book series I curate is that it helps show how brands and their agency partners are addressing these considerations. This also avoids getting bogged down in protracted debate about definitions. I have included the ‘Three Circles of Branded Content Marketing’ diagram again because it is a useful tool not only for analysing these case studies, but also for thinking through the questions above as part of developing a branded content marketing strategy.

3 Circles

There are, however, a host of other considerations that experts around the world have raised. Perhaps the most significant is that businesses have lost absolute control of their brands, which leads some to believe that brands now need to go beyond being just customer-centric to become completely customer-obsessed.

So, despite industry excitement about how technology is enabling brands to connect with customers via content in ever more sophisticated and creative ways, there’s also a growing consensus about a need to understand people and culture better.

The rise and rise of storytelling has been the most consistent theme to emerge from my discussions with experts. As mentioned in my last CMR article, this is something that former Ad Age editor Scott Donaton (now Chief Content Officer at DigitasLBi) believes changes everything about how brands go to market, and this means doing what they don’t like doing: making major changes to their processes, the skillsets of the people they hire, the timeframes they work within, and the way they allocate and think about budgets.

Scott also thinks that brands need to change their definition of creativity. This is interesting because technology is increasingly being seen by some experts as the ‘solution’ to content-based marketing strategies. Before looking at what’s on offer and what’s being predicted in this space, it would be useful to look at what’s going on at the macro-level as a modern version of what was once ‘creative and media’. As Th@t Lot’s MD Barney Worfolk-Smith explains, on one hand there are the ideas, content and messaging; on the other, there are the framework and mechanisms for delivering the former – and these are rapidly becoming more algorithmic, programmatic and predictive in order to help personalise and optimise content across multiple platforms.

Experts also see personalisation becoming more contextual so that marketing becomes more pulled than pushed, which is why content-based approaches are predicted to be unrecognisable from traditional advertising in future. The current challenge that Barney highlights is more about the increasing need to use social platforms to reach people in what he calls their fractured passion centres (diverse and scattered social environments). As he points out, there are few people who really understand how to develop stories delivered through these mechanisms at scale.

What’s the point in spending all your time trying to get to the party if you don’t have anything to say when you get there? And vice versa, what’s the point in having something great to say if you can’t get to the party?

The point Barney is making is that the media landscape isn’t what it used to be. It is more fractured and complex now, and this doesn’t necessarily favour the thinking that comes out of traditional-style media and creative agencies. This situation is linked to the changing skillset point made by Scott, and that’s why Barney recommends that brands and their agencies need to work with smaller specialists doing great work in the social arena, to try and figure out how this can be replicated at scale.

As the lines between brands, media owners, agencies and even consumers continue to blur, we’re also seeing new agency models emerge that include publishers becoming agencies. As mentioned in my previous CMR article, this forms part of a trend for the production of continuous content by those who understand traditional editorial and programming, such as publishers and broadcasters. It is also less risky for brands to collaborate with content creators rather than compete with them. As Ogilvy Group UK’s Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland explains, you only have to look at Hollywood to see how many flops and duds are supported by a few successes.

However, others see the future being less about working with content creators and technology providers for better crafting of messaging and targeting, and more about using the insights derived from Big Data to make marketing into service opportunities that provide better customer experiences. This includes predictions about opportunities afforded by wearable technology, smart appliances, the Internet of Things and hyper geo-location.

Some experts, such as Leo Burnett’s James Kirkham, see branded content moving off screen, and translate making a gesture mnemonic to access the brand – for example, tracing out the Heineken star when you walk into a bar to access that brand’s content or order its beer. For James this is about brands thinking of the future less in terms of branded content and more about people’s branded life. This may be more relevant to some generations than others, particularly with the maturation of the millennial adult, who Tenthwave’s Eric Schwamberger predicts will ‘quickly become the most powerful consumer, literally ever.’

We may also see a resurgence of older media, such as radio and book publishing, that have been going through their own digital revolutions. In the meantime, mobile is increasingly becoming the first screen, which WME | IMG’s Doug Scott believes is driving content shifts. These include sharing on the living room screen, particularly around live programming, but also other real-time marketing initiatives such as public out-of-home advertising (OOH) where smart displays are triggered by mobile devices via beacons and other geo- location technologies.

It is worth noting that the changes in consumer media habits and behaviour, specifically those brought about by the rise of social media, have forced brands to rethink not only the way they conduct their marketing, but also how they measure it. In theory, the ever- growing number of data points can bring more rigour. In reality, the increase in data points is often driven by the multitude of measure- ment and analytical tools now available. This situation creates a danger of measuring data for the sake of it. When coupled with the growing obsession for all things real-time, this can lead to an overemphasis on the short-term rather than longer-term effects of marketing.

The fragmented media landscape also means that brands are now faced with the dual challenges of trying to figure out how individual channels or touchpoints are working at the micro level, and how they all fit together holistically. Tapestry Research’s Ian Wright thinks this is a tough challenge, but he believes it can be met through a combi- nation of small-scale qualitative insight, Big Data observation and survey-based interpretation.

Tim Foley at Pointlogic thinks that there is going to be a different set of challenges as market research gets turned on its head by the explosion of more data. He predicts that, rather than aggregating audiences around their demographics, it will be possible to value individuals based on purchase probabilities. As he points out, this changes everything in terms of how media works and who should be on the team to deliver and evaluate it.

It is not clear, however, how many brands are currently measuring branded content campaigns with the same rigour they measure advertising. More accountability and analysis is required if the brand- ed content approach is going to show that it pulls its weight beyond the simple counting of views, shares, re-tweets, etc. Brands may have to take a longer-term view and rethink what’s being measured and why. As the BCMA’s Andrew Canter argues, branded content marketing is an investment that often pays back in the mid-to-long term rather than having an immediate impact.

The impact of technology aside, my discussions with experts raised an interesting question about the business model of the branded content approach, and whether this is different from traditional advertising where eyeballs are bought. The answer to this question may also influence what’s measured and why, particularly as the media landscape is being refined by the gradual merger of the advertising and media worlds. This is one of a number of new and emerging themes covered in the third edition of the BOBCM book that’s due out later this year. Before then, I’ll be looking at what experts think won’t change in the final instalment of this CMR article series.