Participants in The Branded Content Project, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project in partnership with Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium, have learned a thing or two in the first few months of experimentation and testing. Building new revenue streams with branded content and sustaining local media initiatives for the long haul are not easy tasks. But they can be profitable, engaging and sustainable. By working with our alpha team and talking with industry leaders in the branded content space, we have discovered five successful strategies that every local media organization can implement right now to build and grow a local branded content initiative.

Our audiences look to local media for news, weather and sports content, but there is an opportunity to create parallel content: content that can live alongside your traditional news, weather, and sports brands, that will engage your audience, excite your advertisers and create new revenue and content opportunities for publishers. A recent report from our research partner, Magid, uncovered that consumers and advertisers are interested in a broader definition of local content. Some of the content areas mentioned in the report include local events / things to do, how to save money, food and dining, and outdoor activities.

According to the Magid 2019 Local Media Landscape Study:

  • 64% of station staffs think they need to create more of this content.
  • 66% of station news staffs are very interested in making this content.
  • 30%-50% of advertisers are very interested in associating with these types of non-news content. This can be an opportunity to engage them with different formats. 
  • Advertisers and agencies mentioned branded content as a desired solution.

Creating new or unique content brands is one of the success strategies that we’re seeing from our alpha testing partners. They are creating initiatives that align with unique content, such as Graham Media Group’s Taking Off initiative, or community and volunteerism content from FWD>DFW, or the government and education branded content provided by the Texas Tribune, or showing local flavor with food, entertainment and storytelling with ABC’s Localish. Building a parallel content strategy creates a success path that engages new audiences and interests new advertisers.

Mike Orren, president of Belo Business Intelligence and chief product officer for Dallas Morning News, explained their FWD>DFW initiative is an important content and revenue opportunity because “it offers high-value content while allowing advertisers the chance to target and engage with their most-likely consumers in a more authentic, interactive, and non-disruptive way.”

One of the major focuses of every branded content team we talk to and a common concern for every publisher participating in our project is answering how we best educate our internal sales teams and our future advertisers. We’re seeing great progress with our alpha group of publishers educating teams through client event strategies and improved sales materials for potential advertisers. We’re also seeing our alphas successfully educate their advertisers, teams and the industry with video explainers, panels and leave-behind documentation to better inform and educate.

When we first started working with our alpha partners, we asked what advice they would give teams taking their first steps with branded content. Jennifer Mitchell, senior vice president of content development for the ABC Owned Television Stations and Localish, explained that it really is about good content, but the sales team is the key to success.

“Branded content is just as much about the content as it is our commitment to our clients. It’s not about producing an advertorial; rely on your strengths as storytellers to create an experience that provides value for your audience and then think about a way to organically integrate the client,” she said. “You also need informed, educated sellers to successfully bring your product to market. Selling content can involve a different set of skills for teams accustomed to selling linear spots, display and pre-roll.”

The reality of the intense need for education really hit home when we conducted advertiser focus groups and executive interviews in coordination with Magid. The results clearly state the need for more education all around, from advertisers to sales teams to audiences. Those results, including action plans by our alpha group and the Branded Content Project team, will be released on Aug. 28.

How you present branded content to advertisers matters. Your initiative should have unique branding and quality marketing materials that will stand out and include examples.

We asked Mike Mocklar, president and chief creative officer of Mocklar Consulting, an innovative content strategy and production company based in Atlanta, Ga., about the importance of fantastic marketing materials for branded content initiatives.

“Ask 10 different people what “branded content” means, and you’re likely to get ten different answers — and that’s just people inside your organization. Ask your clients, and many of them won’t have any idea of what you are talking about,” he said. “The easiest way to solve this problem is to show, not tell. Show them an example of what the branded content campaign you are creating will look like, whether that’s a sample article, video, social post, or anything else.  Help your advertisers (and your confused internal colleagues) visualize what this content will look and feel like, what makes it special, and why they want to be a part of it. A great sizzle reel of your best branded content gets your clients excited, and will get the team excited about the project.” 

Evie Kevish, project manager for Shaw Media, agrees with the importance of examples. What’s her advice?

“Clients must sign a minimum six-month agreement and have a content calendar ready and show them examples. If they do not know what native is, the best way to show them is examples.”

Several of the alpha partners have started taking a hard look at how they are presenting their initiatives to future advertisers and reworking and redesigning marketing materials and promotional materials.

“There’s a lot of value in our branded content products and we want to ensure the materials used to sell them and their quality match up,” said Katie Fulp, manager of client services and operations at Capitol Broadcasting Company / WRAL.

Rodney Gibbs, chief product officer at Texas Tribune, is ready for a redesign. “We are turning our attention to developing collateral and testing promotional tactics that will help our sales team better communicate and sell branded content.”

It is time for people in local media to ask each other for help. There is much to learn from collaboration and conversations between print, broadcast, digital and emerging content leaders. The sharing of branded content knowledge in our alpha group has been a test case to show how we can grow together.

We’ve seen Texas Tribune sharing event strategies with ABC’s Localish and McClatchy’s Creative Lab. We’ve had Shaw Media share video advice with Texas Tribune and collaborate on content creation strategies with WRAL. Graham Media Group has been sharing advice with Shaw and Texas Tribune on Google Native Ads. Dallas Morning News has been offering advice on ad tech and branded content strategy to fellow Texan publisher, Texas Tribune.

Rachel Schwartz, director of content operations at ABC Owned Television Stations, pinpoints why this group has been beneficial.

“Working with other alpha partners in The Branded Content Project has allowed us to learn from what they’re doing in the live event space – everything from event pacing and how we measure success, to recommendations on interesting ways to insert messaging through items like cocktail napkins.” 

And this is just the beginning. As we add 20 more publishers in a beta round later this year, you can imagine the opportunities for sharing, learning and growing. These types of conversations that cross traditional boundaries of media type, size of market or ownership group show the importance and the growing need for this type of collaboration and open and honest conversations between publishers. We’re more alike than different, and branded content has been a perfect scenario for a test. We are just starting to tap into the power of our collaborative efforts.

At the end of the day, all that truly matters for local media publishers are the stories you tell. This holds true for sponsored content just like it would for editorial content. If we focus on relational rather than transactional engagement with our audiences the revenue growth from branded content will follow.

Adrian Fulle, former executive producer for Variety, tells us how branded content is different from a commercial.

“Branded content is a commercial, but it shouldn’t feel like one. When producing branded content, you should be focused on telling a great story about compelling human beings who are inspiring or engaging. If what the client really wants is a commercial, tell them to go make a commercial, because branded content is not the same.”

Our alphas agree that storytelling is the key to success. At Graham Media Group, storytelling strength is what makes branded content work.

“The strength of local news sites is in their content and ability to tell stories, and branded content allows us to put that strength at the forefront and better gain control of the monetization in ways that have been lost on the internet,” said Mike Katona, Graham Media Group’s Director of Digital Operations.

Eric Brandner, general manager of McClatchy’s Creative Lab, agrees.

“At its best, branded content is a step away from great journalism in all the right ways: well-crafted storytelling that engages and enriches the lives of our audience.”

Tell a good story.

One that will help businesses grow.

One that would interest your audience whether it’s paid content or not.

That’s the secret for all successful branded content initiatives.

LMA’s work with the Branded Content Project is part of Accelerate Local, a transformative, purpose-built entity committed to ensuring the future of local news by discovering, researching, testing and delivering new business models that can profitably scale.