It might not seem like it, but “great branded content” is actually a pretty elegant and literary turn of phrase. It’s clear, economical, and easy to understand. It passes the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. Plus, it achieves a poetic goal of making the words mimic the subject. Think about it—the phrase is structured to do exactly what we content creators and marketers are trying to do, which is place a brand right in the center of great content.
Little things like this are noticed explicitly by writers, but they are implicitly picked up by audiences. This is probably why it is so common to see the phrase “great branded content” as opposed to “superior marketing materials.” This is why craft matters. Not just to those of us who make a living creating, but to everyone. But when it comes to craft, writers and content makers are often challenged by two goals: maintain the integrity of the content and ensure brand goals are met.
Why is this so hard? The two are not intrinsically at odds, but anyone who’s even flirted with the publishing world knows that traditionally editorial and advertising have been kept as separate as church and state. Today’s consumer market sees those worlds colliding more and more frequently, even crowd-sourced editorial mecca Reddit is on board with an awesome campaign.
Still, there remains a fine line between creating content of op-ed, creative, educational, political, or journalistic intent and creating it for a brand. That’s because the branded content has two jobs— to serve the audience and serve the brand. And therein lies a creative dilemma: who are we really working for here? The user, a lover we are courting, or our loyal partner (who is also paying the bills), the brand? There are worse things than a threesome, so let’s see if we can’t find some solutions to satisfy everyone.
Do I have to say it? Weighing when to mention your brand
Branded content is generally tangential or related to, but does not directly address, the brand. For example, this blog post is sponsored by OZ Content Technologies, and even though I am not talking specifically about the benefits of Oz’s product, nor am I boasting about how awesome OZ Content is as a company, you, reader, might start to appreciate OZ Content because OZ Content provides awesome and insightful material, such as this post. That’s the high-level gist of it, at least. But, being heavy handed is—well, as you can see from my little example above—a bit off putting.
We are challenged to walk a subtle line in terms of how the brand comes through. Do you or don’t you mention the brand outright? It is something that the writer/editor/content developer needs to negotiate on a case-by-case basis. Here are some considerations that might help you make that decision:
- Is this piece of content visibly connected with the brand? That is, is it clearly logoed, accessed through the brand’s site, part of a sponsored bundle, etc.? If so, you may have a bit of flexibility in directly addressing the brand within the piece.
- How closely tied is your topic to your brand’s primary offering? If it is very closely tied, you might be able to work a brand mention in seamlessly and naturally. If not, you may need to find a more nuanced way to map back to your brand.
- Will mentioning your brand undermine the purpose of the piece? If this is the case, you may need to look at your topic and decide if it is really a worthy content offering in the first place.
Writing keywords without feeling like a fraud
Another big challenge is that “success” for promotional material is often measured through a host of metrics, some of which can interfere with creative content quality. Take keywords for example. There is nothing worse than reading a piece of content that has clearly been laden with words that are meant to optimize the SEO access, but are obviously unnatural to the voice and the topic. A few thoughts on that:
- You only need to say it once. No really, that’s how the SEO metric works. You only need to get your keyword in the body of your story one time and it will register for most search engines. Pretty optimal.
- Think ahead. Knowing what words you want to use and then writing your piece will result in a far more natural usage than having to shoehorn them in after.
- Go deep and not broad. For example, if you are writing about Donald Trump’s response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement (which, if you are a brand, you’re probably not, but stay with me here), there is no need to work in the words “Ferguson” or “Shandra Bland” simply in hopes of gaining eyes. Think about the purpose of your story, and choose a long-tail keyword that is relevant. Meaningful keywords go much farther and serve a greater purpose than many dispersed ones.
Form follows function when choosing your content medium
Keywords are one challenge, but great content is not limited to articles, tweets, and blogs. Lots and lots of content is visual or video, and those come with their own challenges. In fact, choosing the medium to produce your content is a challenge in itself.
So many brands want video and are willing spend on it. They get big budgets, and think whatever they make will go viral. But I warn brands and storytellers alike that it is crucially important to consider the topic closely before choosing your medium. Form really should follow function here.
Recipes come to mind. I’ll say it, when it comes to recipes, written directions are in order full stop. So that I can read them at my own pace. And take the list with me to the store (and view that web page again on my phone). And review it again while I am cooking, without having to rewind or wait through the preroll while my damn soufflé shrivels and dies, along with my desire to revisit that brand. In this case, photos and a few tightly written instructions will almost ALWAYS be more shareable and valuable. But, a makeup tutorial? That’s much more visual. If I can watch the brushstroke happening, I can recreate it far better than I could by just reading about it.
Don’t be swayed by glamorous or trendy mediums for their own sake. Think through the purpose of your content and then choose your medium and your primary outlet.
Writing headlines without hating yourself
And finally my least favorite topic: titles and headlines. What can I say? I went to Sarah Lawrence and I hate labels, man. I hate that “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is considered an incredible title by marketing standards. I can’t be alone in feeling that click bait-type titles are painful for any writer with integrity to produce. We would rather a title evoke feeling and draw readers in, or make the title a satisfying bow that ties the story together at the end. But in this industry, capturing eyes is often about ease of use. And there is a good deal to be learned from the business of headline writing.
What do I do? Work within the system to undermine it. In school, when the poetry assignment was to follow a specific form (a sestina, a villanelle), I often took a lot of pleasure in pushing the limits. Do the same with titles. A little lead in before your “How To” or some alliteration in your “10 Ways” might get you there. Follow the rules, but flex your muscles. Double points if you can sneak in a reference to a major literary work.
Brands are developing new and novel approaches, and for creatives and audiences alike, the deepening relationship is great. But like all relationships, it requires work and compromise. Real, relevant content on behalf of a brand is possible. Purpose, business savvy, and marketing are indeed part of the story, but they should never cost craft. Artistry, quality, and care will always remain the untamable force that compels us to like, to send, to share, and whether or not we care to admit it, to sell.