Why and How to Sponsor Branded Content

Branded content is a powerful tool in the stack of serious marketers and organizations. A concentrated, strategic campaign can take you from being an obscure competitor of a major product to being a cultural phenomenon.

Yet few marketers, and even fewer non-marketers, know what branded content is, how and why it is superior to advertising or sponsorships, and how to get started in the branded circles. Those with an inkling of an idea confuse it for product placement or for sponsored stories.

Branded Content is the shadow king of marketing today.

Imagine this:

You are the CMO for a high-growth, established company. Your company is at the stage where you are not scrimping for scraps anymore and can actually afford to put money into the high risk-high reward marketing areas. You currently pour most of your energy into email sponsorships, advertising, and social media ads. These are reliable media that allow you to plug and chug with a large enough budget.

But your CEO approaches you (and if you are like most marketers, s/he’s doing so from a place of extreme skepticism) and tasks you with increasing revenue by at least 10%, increasing brand awareness, and getting more evergreen bang for your buck. Facebook ads are nice, says the CEO, but people either click on them or they don’t. Try something new, but (and here’s the catch any CMO would cringe at) make sure it actually drives ROI.

Print is dying. Adblocker is on more than 615 million devices. Young people are leaving Facebook for Instagram and Snapchat. Advertising on Snapchat does not do much, either.

You could put more into email sponsorships and improve your own, but the CEO wants to see new investments.

What’s a CMO to do?

How People View Non-Native Advertising

“Pivot to video!”

At this point in 2017, pivoting to video is a trite meme as more and more publishers and products are moving to video and away from blogs and podcasts.

But just because you get onto video does not mean that people will actually watch your videos.

For too many companies, pivoting to video means making your own short advertisements as videos. People think either inspiring commercials ala GE:

Or funny advertisements ala Dollar Shave Club:

But “pivoting to video” does not mean anything if people are not actually watching your video advertisements. This strategy may have worked years ago when there was less noise in the video market and putting together an interesting advertisement cost twice as much as it does today.

But the market is saturated today.

Anywhere from 6090% of people skip video ads. And the trends make it look like that will just keep increasing. Those who are not skipping ads on YouTube are removing ads altogether from their Facebook newsfeeds with adblockers.

People watch content for the content, not for the advertising that accompanies it.

This is how consumers view advertising accompanying videos:

The skip rates between 60–90% are actually low considering that many of those who are recorded as “views” are either bots (another reason why you should be skeptical of views on videos…look at video watch time instead. If your views are high but your video watch time doesn’t make sense, chances are your video has been hit by YouTube bots) or ignoring the advertisements or muting them.

What’s the psychology behind this?

The most-engaged-with content is that which has rapport and trust with the consumer. Consumers engage regularly with content either because the creator(s) created rapport with the consumer or because it was referred by somebody with whom that consumer already has rapport.

Advertising enters the picture without rapport as something tacked on top of the trust-engaged interaction.

Consumers reject that which interrupts their ability to enjoy their lives and content.

This is like if two people sat down to have a conversation at a cafe and the cafe invited somebody it knew to sit down with these people for a few minutes and pitch them on their product. This violates the sense of rapport between the consumer and the content creator. The venue — like YouTube or Facebook — is just a utility for having the conversation in the first place.

Source: Nielsen

There’s a crisis in advertising.

Advertisers fail to understand trust and consumers reject their agenda in the process.

Branded content is the fix.

What Is Branded Content?

Branded content is a form of native marketing that engages and builds trust with the consumer by giving more than it takes. Like influencer marketing, branded focuses on leveraging and building the trust of the situation for your benefit. Through informative and entertaining content which connects back to the brand’s products or mission, branded content provides a way for marketers and their businesses to sidestep the crisis of trust between advertisers and consumers.

Branded content is a form of native advertising, matching the look, feel, and experience of whichever platform in which it appears.

As more consumers reject trust-less advertising, native branded content is on the rise.

Branded content adds to the consumer’s experience, it does not take away. If a consumer is reading the New York Times, branded content will add to that experience rather than take up space to hit them over the head with an advertisement. If the consumer is enjoying Netflix, branded content may take the form of a show or a movie focusing on a specific company or product.

The key here is that branded does not betray the sense of trust that the consumer looks for in their interaction with the content creator. It’s like getting a recommendation or an introduction from a friend.

Branded takes many forms:

— Videos (Facebook, YouTube)

— Long-form Movies and Shows(Netflix, Amazon Prime)

— Articles (Publications)

— Podcasts

— Virtual Reality

— Quizzes

Examples of Branded Content

We’ve covered a few examples of branded content before, like The Internship, The LEGO Movie, Apple’s advertising, GE’s advertising, but taking a look at actual, living examples of branded content is one of the best ways to get a feel for what it is and to understand why it performs so well.

If it does not take the form of a publication partnering with a brand, it might take the form of two brands partnering with each other, like Marvel and Fatherly coming together to create this Guardians of the Galaxy branded content:


Knowing your audience is likely the most important determinant of where you will put out branded content. If you appeal to business executives and those interested in travel, better to hit up a major newspaper website than Facebook. This is what Delta did with the New York Times on a video and extended post about Altanta’s growth:


BuzzFeed UK and Sky partnered together to put out a short, 0:47 video promoting Sky’s at-home entertainment hardware:


The content performed well.

Branded does not have to be an article or a video. It can take the form of high-engagement content like quizzes or virtual reality.

Centre College partnered with BuzzFeed to produce a quiz promoting their study abroad program:


You can check out more examples of branded content campaigns at Brandtale.

What’s the one thing these all have in common?

They add to the consumer experience.

But wait, what’s the difference between branded content and sponsored content?

Branded content may look like sponsored content at first, but the difference between sponsored content and branded content turns on whether or not the consumer is being engaged. Is the content just throwing advertisements at them that look like content or is most of the content actual content and the product promotion is kept to a minimum?

If longer-form, the difference between branded content and sponsored content turns on storytelling. Is a story being told in which the consumer is invited in, or is a series of events simply presented to promote a product?

How to Sponsor Branded Content

So you want to sponsor branded content.

Most branded content sales for publishers come through media agencies and creative studios devoted to doing sponsored and branded content, but a growing portion comes direct from brands themselves.

source: Polar

Three R’s

When choosing to purchase branded content, you want to approach a trifecta akin to purchasing influencer marketing. Think in terms of Three R’s.

Reach: How many people follow this publisher or can easily be engaged? Does the publication have its own distribution channels?

source: Polar

Resonance (Quality): How devoted are followers of this publisher? Look for lifestyle publications and those that actively promote new advice and products to their audiences.

Relevance: Does working with this publisher make sense? Think Delta and the New York Times above. If you are an airline looking to attract more business executives, you’ll want to work with a publication whose demographics focus around business and business executives.

Get inside the heads of your consumers. Ask questions (both to yourself and to them). Some helpful questions to ask:

— What publications do our consumers regularly read?

— How long do they read those publications?

— Are a disproportionate chunk of our consumers “superfans” on any specific publication and spend hundreds of hours reading it?

Find a list of 5–10 publishers who meet your Reach, Resonance, and Relevance categories and figure out your budget for the branded content campaign.

Pricing: What to Expect

There’s no standard model for pricing of branded content. Different publishers use CPM, CPV, and Sponsorship packages.

Generally speaking, you can expect to find CPM pricing for publications that do most of their business direct with ad agencies, because this is how ad agency budgets are structured. Engagement is a better metric for branded content, though, so new branded content platforms and updated mature platforms will use the CPV metric.

Branded content that relies heavily on a specific medium, like email newsletters or podcasts, may use a Sponsorship model, which itself likely follows an expected CPM pricing model.

Metrics: How to Measure Success

Creating a beautiful story and putting it out to the world is great and all, but what kinds of metrics will you want to take back to your CEO?

source: Polar

It’s difficult to get a feel for what the best branded content metrics are since branded content is a relatively new field. Publishers consider campaigns to be successful based on traditional metrics for the media they put out, like minutes watched or pageviews.

That’s not helpful… source: Polar

Remember that the point of branded content is to build a trustful relationship with consumers so that any references to your product or brand are like recommendations from a friend. The purpose is not to hit them over the head with popups or telemarketer calls until they feel badgered into consuming.

A stronger metric for branded content performance is brand recognition and brand lift but this requires publishers to have a close enough relationship with their consumers to survey them.

source: Polar

Only 33% of existing publications actually survey their consumers about brand awareness. This means that those with a regular, trustworthy relationship with their consumers and who can easily put out an in-house survey to them should come at a premium that is well worth the price.

With this in mind, go after your top 5–10 publications that meet your 3 R’s, have a tight relationship with their readers, and can provide you with the clearest possible metrics on your branded content campaign.


How Salesy Should I Expect Branded Content to Be?
Branded content is not about making a direct sales pitch. It is not an advertisement. It is not a commercial. Branded content is about facilitating trust in order to make future sales with considerably lower friction. A quality branded content publication will tell your story first and make a sales pitch later.

How Measurable Is Branded Content?
Branded is about trust and bringing down the cost of future sales. The best measurements for branded content are going to be direct feedback from consumers and tracking future sales costs. Good branded content will bring down the price of acquisition for future clients/consumers.

How Can We Measure Trust?
Trust is measured through time spent in a publication/on a brand’s site, direct surveying, and engagement through thoughtful comments and shares. High quality, high-trust publications can get consumers to make a purchase or download an item with very little additional selling.

The Mission reaches millions of awesome people every month. We only work with brands whose products we use, love and trust. Storytelling isn’t easy, and if you need some guidance, we’ve got folks ready to help. Connect with The Mission’s Creative Team here!

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