By Darius Pocha, Creative Director of Enable Interactive.
Branded content and brand immersion into entertainment products isn't a new idea, but digital has turned the broadcasting model on its head, allowing brands to deliver content directly to an audience, bypassing traditional media.
Done well and with integrity, this is an interesting and powerful way for brands to create or maintain relevance. The idea is that you produce content that is sufficiently compelling and people choose to engage with it. It's the opposite of interruption advertising.
If you're considering creating branded content or a content-based campaign, the first question to ask is not 'how to' so much as 'should we'?
First we should probably make a distinction- I'm not talking about the traditional idea of a 'viral' style campaign where you create a piece of compelling content and simply attach a brand to it.
What I'm talking about is content where the brand, its messages, products or services are actually part of the experience.
Assuming that's your goal, here's what you should consider:
Is there an interesting story you can tell around your brand?
Nike's UK marketing chief says "We don't do advertising any more. We just do cool stuff...advertising is all about achieving awareness, and we no longer need awareness. We need to become part of people's lives...”
This is a position they've created for themselves as a brand, not least by aligning them with the world's top athletes and sportspeople - a cast of incredibly compelling characters to tell stories about.
When we worked with Speedo in the run up to the Beijing Olympics we were able to create a piece of content that gave their core performance consumers a sneak preview of the 'fastsuit' that Michael Phelps was going to use as part of his bid to win 8 gold medals.
For their audience, this was incredibly and genuinely exciting. And legitimate. Phelps actually went and did it in Beijing and became arguably the most successful Olympian of all time - and his fans got the inside track from Speedo.
If you are a brand you should know instinctively whether there's an amazing story you can tell about yourself. If you're having to search hard for it, the chances are it's not there. Even with the best will in the world, it's unlikely that a company producing dishwasher tablets is going to produce a mind-blowing piece of content...
Is there actually an audience for it?
Having defined the audience you want to reach, you need to understand whether they're interested in the story you want to tell. The worst thing to do is wimp out and try to make it too general - the most powerful interests are esoteric, niche, partisan.
So go there. Don't be afraid of creating content to engage a smaller but more passionate audience. One of the major advantages of good content over advertising is the ability to create deeper or prolonged engagement, so going 'narrow and deep' rather than 'wide and shallow' often works best.
We worked with British Red Cross to produce an ARG (Alternative Reality Game) around the fictional story of young Ugandan boy in an IDP camp where the players interact with the character to help him find his mother. This is a difficult, complex subject matter, but 60,000 people visited the site to find out what was going on and around 7,000 registered to play.
How can they get involved?
Audiences no longer want to just turn up and passively consume content. Involvement can range from simple discussion around the content to full-on participation in the story or experience.
Generally you need to build different levels of participation so your audience can choose the level at which they get involved. Don't be blind to the potential for your audience to co-create content with you.
Another campaign we ran with British Red Cross used a mini soap opera (or 'nano-soap') to connect with 16-20 year olds on Bebo around the subject of HIV. Bebo-ers could comment, vote in polls, take part in quizzes and become a friend of the characters. Some interactive narratives take this a step further, allowing the audience to vote on the way characters behave or the way the plot unfolds.
What's the best format?
There are any number of forms your content can take: video, podcasts and games are just some of the options, but the key thing is to find a format that allows you to tell your story and gain the audience’s involvement in the most natural way.
Some platforms - like ARGs or virtual worlds - come with pre-existing communities. Be aware that these communities have very high standards around the quality of the content you produce and will be very vocal if they believe you haven't earned the right to be part of their world.
Will it feel legitimate or look like sales-y advertising?
There's not necessarily anything wrong with using content to sell. You just have to remember the difference between content and advertising - content is interesting stuff an audience want to engage with for its own sake, adverts are sales messages that piggyback or interrupt content to reach an audience. By all means sell, but first earn the right by providing something of value.
Everyone hates being patronised or having their time wasted. There are no prizes for putting a lot of effort into reaching in audience only to turn them off. Try-hard, boring, manipulative 'content' that's clearly a sales pitch will create a nasty smell that sticks to your brand. Don't do it.
In summary, these are the the things to think about:
1. Find a compelling story to tell
2. Make sure there's an audience that will be interested
3. Think about how the audience can get involved
4. Find the best format
5. Don't confuse content and advertising
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