Branded content uses the strength of storytelling to provide valuable benefits to advertisers while increasing audience engagement and revenue for local media publishers. This powerful revenue stream has shown to be a success for many media organizations. The Branded Content Project is designed to help facilitate additional growth, engagement and success for more publishers of all shapes and sizes. The project was developed through a unique partnership between the LMC and the LMA. It is part of a $1 million investment from the Facebook Journalism Project to help more than 2,000 local newsrooms among LMA and LMC members better understand, develop and implement revenue streams through branded content both on and off Facebook. The call for applications was announced in January and ended March 1. Applications came from LMA and LMC members and non-members alike, with close to 40 entries from across the U.S. and as far away as India and Norway.

After five rounds of the selection process — with guidance from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and careful consideration given to those projects that were financially successful, scalable to other markets or media types and could provide lessons for the industry — our 7 Alpha partners were selected. The 7 Amazing Alpha Partners that will be leading industry innovation are ABC Owned Television Station Group, The Dallas Morning News, Graham Media Group, McClatchy, Shaw Media, The Texas Tribune, and WRAL in Raleigh, N.C.

We will highlight one of our Alphas each of the next seven days, allowing you to peek inside their initiative and showcase why they have seen success with branded content. We will follow each of our Alphas every step of the way for the next six months of research, testing and results.

We asked each Alpha partner to fill in the blanks on a few questions focused on branded content. Here is what TEAM CREATIVE LAB @MCCLATCHY shared with us.

Tell me in a few sentences about your initiative and what you see as the strongest elements of your program.

Our initiative centers around an event series tentatively titled “The Urgency of Branded Content.” We want to simultaneously educate current and potential clients on why they need branded content in their marketing plan sooner rather than later while also reinforcing the value of this work to local McClatchy sales teams who may not have the language or expertise to explain the value to their clients. Our starting idea is to create a curriculum and host a series of day-long events in the McClatchy markets with the most potential for branded content sales growth. The Creative Lab’s general manager, creative director and in-market producer(s) will invite regional advertisers (both current and prospective) and local McClatchy sales representatives to participate in an afternoon workshop and panel discussion about why they need to expand into branded content to bolster the effectiveness of their marketing strategies. These discussions will 1) serve as sparks to create branded content relationships, and 2) lead to additional branded content creation centered around sales and education. Think event video, written stories and Q&As plus several quotable social posts that engage a broader audience that can’t attend.

Our branded content initiative is unique because we want to crack the code on branded content buying urgency. The Creative Lab @McClatchy has some good experience. We have a deep, talented team. We’re proud of the way we’ve grown. But what we don’t have – despite a few hundred pitch meetings the last three years – is a magic bullet that turns a client saying “we get it and we like it” to “we get it and we have to buy this” in any reasonable amount of time (in a world of traditionally shorter lead times). Maybe one doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s only something we can attain over time (and we’re seeing some renewals in 2019, which is promising). But we think we have the correct elements in place to grow and are anxious to expand at a pace that makes a real difference for our parent company and – a few steps down the road – boosts the resources of the newsrooms creating the journalism our branded content work supports.

Branded content is an important revenue opportunity for media groups and for advertisers because you can’t be an industry leader anymore without it. Branded content isn’t for everyone, and we tell that to our sales teams and prospective clients alike. But for the people who believe in it and can afford to allocate enough budget to make it well, it’s a differentiator. If your company wants to be a significant player in its industry – whether that’s regional auto sales or a national cleaning supply manufacturer – and all you talk about is price-point on your base model Hyundai or how your product cleans 20 percent better than your fiercest competitor’s, you’re not going to stay on top for very long (with a few exceptions). Those are important stats to consumers, but they don’t tell great stories. Great branded content gives a meaning to what you create. It builds loyalty. It educates, inspires and delights. It aligns you with your core audience’s ideals and aspirations without painting a fantastical or unattainable picture.

The aspect of the Branded Content Project’s Alpha Group that excites me the most is the collaboration and research. We know branded content is a tough sell outside large brands with significant budgets. But we’d love to hear the trial-and-error stories and perceived best practices of our peers, along with getting a sense of how we can shape the perception of branded content for our potential customers who aren’t advised by a glitzy New York-based agency (as those larger regional companies comprise the majority of the businesses we close).

We hope to learn as much as possible about successful products, sales tactics and customer behavior insights pertaining to branded content through the Branded Content Project and its Alpha Group.

If a media organization is just starting to sell branded content I would tell them that … It’d take a long time to get all that advice out, and we still have so much to learn. But assuming they’re starting from scratch with a small creative team (even if that’s just a creative director/producer duo), I’d say selling the value of branded content to your internal sales team first, before going to market with your pitches, should be among your highest priorities. Quality branded content costs money and is far more difficult to create than a banner ad or a Facebook post. Getting your sales team to buy in all the way on why their clients need branded content — and how, if it’s done right, their clients should actually thank them for bringing them branded content as a tactic — is the fastest way to amplify your message and drive sales. If they see how valuable great branded content can be, it will pay off for everyone.