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I have been lucky enough to have worked in the ad industry for a couple of decades and media sales, as the traditional moniker held, is fast diversifying into two distinct pathways: creating content with and for brands; and driving efficiencies through automation and data. I’ve been fortunate to work with brands at various stages in the evolution of their content strategies, spanning big multi-nationals, government agencies and startups.

Each bring different challenges, with a wide range of investment capabilities and diverse objectives, but in all cases there are a plethora of decisions to be made when it comes to crafting a compelling brand narrative and settling on the most appropriate distribution strategy.

To help me navigate the complexities involved in producing branded content campaigns, I’ve developed 10 rules to help me when approaching a brief, so we can conceive and produce great work for clients that deliver against their goals.

1. Know what you are trying to achieve

One of the keys to a successful content strategy is ensuring you fully understand your objectives. Every brand, whether big or small needs to identify who are they are trying to reach and what outcome they are looking for through the content they deliver. When starting out on your content strategy, decide who you are targeting, what you want them to feel and what you want them to do when they engage with the content you are going to create. Get this piece right and the rest starts to fall into place. Fail to nail this down and there’s a good chance you won’t meet your goals.

2. Define what success looks like and be realistic

Make sure you understand your budget capability and set your goals accordingly to what’s possible. Don’t think about hiring a high profile personality on multi-location shoots unless you have cash to burn. Stories that bring a genuine human truth will have a more authentic, organic feel, often resulting in better engagement.

Creating content can be expensive and it eats resource internally so there is much to be gained by working with a third party. There is a common misconception that third parties are only looking to work with larger brands, not true. Working with a third party will give you access to infrastructure, experience and expertise that you may not have within your business.

3. Set up your production vs distribution ratio appropriately

There is no point in producing beautiful content if you limit the eyeballs that will see it. So it’s imperative to strike the right balance between production values and volume of content to enable enough budget to support your distribution and amplification strategy. Context remains a universal truth to effective content marketing, delivering the right brand association to the right audience in the right environment at the right time. Overlaying a paid, data led targeting strategy is key to this, so don’t skimp when it comes to investing in quality targeting to augment organic reach.

4. Data, data, data

Customer insights are key – what do your customers respond to, their likes, their dislikes, their behaviour patterns, at what times are they most receptive? These insights are invaluable in helping you decide your choice of platform, environment and what type of content is most appropriate. Be sure to tap into the wealth of customer data that you have access to and use this to inform your content strategy. Have the confidence to share your insights (and where policy allows, data too) with your third party content partners, collaboration is at the heart of a winning formula.

5. Create an emotional connection

Seek the truth of the story in your content. Consumers demand the genuine in branded content and they can sniff out a dud a mile away…and they’ll treat your brand accordingly. At BBC StoryWorks, we embrace stories about the human experience that create a powerful emotional response. Don’t be afraid of stories that illicit challenging emotions, both positive and negative emotions have a strong impact and deliver memorable connections. This is true both implicitly in the subconscious of your audience and explicitly in the way they may share the content. So don’t be vanilla and remember, they aren’t interested in your brand imposing itself into the storyline.

6. Don’t be afraid of failure

We learn as much from content that doesn’t work as we do from content that knocks it out of the park . No brand, no matter their budget, will ever have a 100% hit rate and learning what doesn’t resonate with your audience (as well as what does) will advance your content strategy. So be brave, take a leap of faith and give permission to your third party partners you have chosen to work with to experiment, test and learn.

7. Be a good partner

Approach your content marketing in the spirit of partnership and embrace your third party partner as an extension of your own team. Once you have chosen your partner throw yourself into the relationship to build trust, understanding and work the relationship. Building effective branded content partnerships is not the same as buying media, it’s not a commodity to be traded at arms’ length. Share internal feedback, build knowledge around success and failure and don’t hide the unpalatable truth.

8. Less is more

Advertisers often assume that having a constant presence in their consumers’ lives with a high volume of less than stellar content represents a strong content strategy. This wrong. Focus on creating great quality, high-impact content that resonates with your audience. This is far more likely to cut through and create a positive association for your brand rather than a stream of average, brand centric content that doesn’t achieve the engagement or brand lift goals you have. Resist the temptation

9. Be constant and consistent

Effective branded content is about establishing a consistent presence with a consistent tone, so map out a strategy that delivers to that. This doesn’t mean being ‘always on’ , think about the principles of how to excite, educate, entertain and inspire your audience with any content piece you produce.

10. Transparency is key

Treat the consumer with respect. Don’t fool your audience by passing off advertising as editorial, create quality content and label it correctly and they will reward you for it with the time they spend with it and the positive association to your brand. The Science of Engagement research we commissioned tells us that there is actually positive value to brands that do this well and negative consequences to those that choose a path of non-transparency.
The future of content marketing is bright. A.I. will inevitably start to enhance our ability to understand human behavior and give us never seen before insight into behaviour patterns.

As we see shifting patterns in traditional display media with more brands moving towards video all indicators point to the fact that consumers are increasingly receptive to being entertained by brands via content that brands help to bring to audiences. As long as we as an industry continue to create decently crafted, well-labelled and well-targeted content, I believe we will continue to see a growth in visual storytelling. No matter the size or shape of the brief there’s one universal rule that I try to live by : “Always Be Learning”.

The writer is Alistair McEwan is senior vice president commercial development APAC for BBC Advertising and BBC StoryWorks.