Using Science to Resolve Branded Content’s Editorial-Commercial Tug-of-War

Using Science to Resolve Branded Content’s Editorial-Commercial Tug-of-War

Part Two in our series about Branded Content looks at how to best tackle the tug of war between commercial and editorial content

Branded content is not a new phenomenon: the integration of brands and products into content stretches back to 1927, when Hershey’s was pictured in the film Wings.

But the rise of adblocking, time shifting, and all other matter of advertising avoidance – as well as the growth of self-publishing platforms – has fuelled the industry’s growth in recent years. It’s projected to be a $300B market by 2019.

Despite this growth, many brands struggle with how to best execute branded content – from identifying a partner, to creating and optimizing their brand stories, to measuring success. We’ve covered identifying a partner more effectively here, and the final article in our series explores measuring branded content success. This piece focuses on the meat: creating and optimizing brand stories.

Now, branded content can be a lot of things. It’s native advertising, sponsorship, product placement, brand integration – anything where a brand is integrated to varying degrees within a piece of entertainment, media or information that audiences want to consume.

But one thing inherent to all branded content is the need to find a balance between commercial content (the salesy bit that consumers are avoiding) and editorial content (the useful, entertaining and informative that consumers seek out, not avoid). Successful branded content strikes the perfect balance between these competing objectives.

But how?

‘Perfect balance’ is the condition that maximizes the core objectives of both the commercial and editorial sides of branded content. These are often in competition. Consumers don’t want to be sold to, so going ‘too commercial’ with branded content will alienate editorial audiences. But because consumers don’t want to be sold to, they’re avoiding ads; meaning publishers are increasingly looking to integrate brands within content sought out by consumers.

Advertisers recognize this dynamic, and are integrating with publishers in order to reach and connect with audiences. But their brands still must be seen and heard – and not just wallpaper. Without evidence to the contrary, more brand exposure (seconds on screen, or some equivalent) will always be considered better.

This creates a tension, which isn’t solvable with traditional tools. Surveys and focus groups won’t provide the necessary granularity or accuracy in audience response to understand how people are responding moment to moment to the editorial and commercial aspects of a piece of branded content. Thus they fail to enable the ability to find the perfect balance for partners. That means value is left on the table for both advertiser and publisher, in missed commercial objectives and alienated audiences.

The science of effective brand storytelling is a neuro-led approach.

But a better approach exists, one that is audience-led and subconsciously based. It measures consumer brain activity every 2 milliseconds, quantifying the impact of editorial and commercial content as it pertains to attention, emotional connection and encoding to memory. Using this method, publishers and advertisers have gained the confidence needed to maximize branded content’s mutual value opportunity. In other words, to find that perfect balance.

Take the example of Coors Light and the brand integration they executed with TSN, a Canadian sports network and broadcaster. After advising on the tone of the 12-part vignette series appropriate for their target audience, we investigated the performance of the first five 30s spots, a sort of mid-campaign check in to determine how the story should evolve.

The five spots had introduced each character in the story, and included several plotlines and dynamics. Brand elements were speckled throughout each spot. By analyzing each vignette – alongside a range of other ads and content from the brand and its competitors – we could evaluate relative performance, and pinpoint the most effective storylines, characters and brand integrations worth further developing.

We could do this because we understood how the target audience’s subconscious responded to each moment of the content – what they paid attention to, connected with emotionally, and encoded to memory.

We also revealed that the best performing spots were the spots in which the brand elements performed best. These spots also outperformed most of the category ads we tested, too, including all of Coors Light’s advertising. Using this data, we achieved two key things:

  • Determined the right balance of commercial and editorial content in the remaining seven vignettes in the series
  • Identified the key characters, storylines and specific brand integration elements to evolve, enhance and cement audience engagement

The resulting increased market share for Coors Light proved the value of this approach. And the program has been renewed with TSN.

The approach works as well without a formal publishing partner, but rather a publishing platform (Youtube) and a branded content agency.

A recent example is our work with RBC on a 20-part branded content web series, designed to live on YouTube. In episode 1, we detected an instance early on of significant drops in audience brain engagement. These engagement drops, it turned out, were predictive of viewers abandoning the video.

This was troubling, as it was a 20-part series (luckily rolled out in stages, so as to test and learn) – and we had lost a significant portion of the audience before the story (and brand!) unfurled. We pinpointed the precise moments that needed changes in the editing room so RBC could turn drop off into tune in – and do so across all episodes. This saved not only blushes, but also hundreds of thousands of dollars in production and media investment from going down the drain. They shared the strong business results of this series at BCON yesterday.

These examples signal the importance of finding the appropriate balance of commercial and entertainment content.

By determining the effectiveness of branded content vignettes and the brand elements within them, Coors Light gained the confidence required to trust that TSN’s branded content product – and branded content more generally – would deliver the desired results.

By understanding where audiences were engaging (and not), RBC gained both the insight required to adjust their content, and the confidence required to introduce their brand only in the 12th episode(!).

On the editorial side for publishers, demonstrating the value of branded integrations – and executional know-how – is critical to both capturing advertising budgets and maintaining audience engagement. This in turn breeds confidence, too, in pitching advertisers on higher-margin solutions in the face of ad avoidance behaviours.

And confidence in how to best execute branded content will encourage adoption on both sides. Powered by science, it’s a win-win-win for advertisers, publishers and consumers.


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