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Branded content – for freelances?

BRANDED content? What's that, then? Should freelances consider getting involved in it? if so, how can freelances "be a part of it"?

© Hazel Dunlop

Graham Hayday

Explaining to LFB how branded content works was Graham Hayday, Head of Studio at the Guardian’s branded content operation Guardian Labs for the past couple of years. (Before that "I was a proper journalist," he joked - with six years at the Guardian.) Also speaking at London Freelance Branch’s October meeting was Tony Hallett,, managing director of Collective Content, an agency who " create contact directly for brands" mostly in the tech sector.

Graham demonstrated that despite "a lot of hype about this," branded content's been around for ages. He showed us the front page of the first ever Manchester Guardian from 1821 - all adverts, "long form copy… typeset by the Guardian. The oldest example of a Guardian article identified as an ADVERTISING FEATURE at the top was from way back in 1970.

Less identifiable branded content include Michelin Guides, which started because the tyre manufacturers "wanted people to use tyres to travel around" more.

Now branded content is "so hot at the moment", with computer processors manufacturer Intel’s publication IQ which is "supposed to be like reading Wired. .". General Electric produce a magazine This Built America - not about their products, but about success stories in US manufacturing. The publication’s become so prestigious that they had Ford advertising on it. And more of Red Bull’s "media brand" has been in media than in its soft drinks operation. Red Bull used to turn up at Formula 1 races, turn out and sell a "really good", print magazine from their printing press truck by the side of the race track within a day. Some 80 per cent of The Onion’s revenues is branded content, and Buzzfeed has no banner advertising, its advertising is all branded content.

© Hazel Dunlop

Tony Hallett

Tony described how one company (unnamed) recently pulled all their advertising, and put it all into an online publication launched at the 100 decision-makers they had to reach.

Why is branded content so hot at the moment? Apparently, 80 per cent of business decision-makers prefer to get "company information" via articles, not ads.

While our guest speakers asked us not to report their detailed analysis of the phenomenon, let's just say digital advertising hasn't been quite the cash cow media outlets hoped it would be. That Holy Grail of digital advertising, search engine optimisation, "will be gone in six or seven years." And recently, some of the world's most popular downloads of software and apps for mobiles have been for ad blockers.

With ad blocking so big, content is increasingly "one of the only games in town.". As journalists, we should be paying attention, because up to now it's always been ads that paid for the journalism (or more recently, has been failing to pay for it.)

Guardian Labs did 360 campaigns last year. It has a very clear labelling structure: you can read it at .

Then there's the "Sponsored by" category, which the Guardian wanted to do anyway, but a sponsor came along or they otherwise wouldn't have the funds. KIA, who sponsor the Oval, were happy to sponsor their Ashes coverage too. The Guardian had always wanted to do a cycling guide, but it only became possible when "Sky came along, they don’t get copy approval,". Sky only see a "one-paragraph synopsis they see" before it gets written.

Finally, there is "Brought to you by", "more closely aligned to the advertiser, there’s some editorial input from the client, and a different font. All Guardian Lab content has a link explaining what its categories mean.

Graham insists the Guardian is not trying to hoodwink people. Core Guardian editorial staff can't work on Guardian Labs. The Guardian can knock a branded content item on the head at any time. Het he admits that some of its competitors allow their staff to, for example, tweet branded content.

Half the people Graham works with on campaigns have come via the "trad" advertising copywriting route, the other half are journos. He says that branded content works best when it tries to communicate an advertiser's values, rather than plug its products. Take the "advertising feature" label off and it should stand up as a feature in its own right. That's "not always possible, but it's what we strive for."

There’s also more work in "owned media" these days – retweets, sharing the company’s facebook page, and so on. Tony says there's a realisation that a lot of social media stuff put out by corporations has been "really bad", and that there are some really good people who can write such content.

One NUJ member in the audience said they'd been asked to choose between their job and their career after coming "under pressure" to do branded content at their regular workplace. When they "get the backing off the NUJ": on this, they find management "just goes along to the next person." Another in the audience was approached as part of some "dodgy project claiming they could get clients' links into newspapers' online pieces." Graham said "you would absolutely know" if that happened and it would backfire on the client.

What does Guardian Labs need from journalists? You're not writing about a brand, but about something of interest to the people who this brand want to reach. They need journos with niche interests - architecture, beekeeping, a weird hobby, people happy to be case studies, or with celeb contacts, and those who understand what content works in a tiny mobile phone screen. (Tony predicted "mobile" will mean more video branded content.)

Ethical considerations? Freelances should make an informed decision on whether they "want to get involved or not" in branded content. How can a journalist credibly do both their regular journalism and a lot of branded content at the same time? The short answer is you can't. Tony advises ":wout of sector.". Graham noted Guardian Labs advertising features are never bylined.

Guardian Labs pay 35p a word. By all means send a short CV, but there's no forward features list or news agenda, it's hard to predicted when and who will come to them for branded content. Elsewhere, whole ecosystem of branded content operations has now grown up. Tony noted that branded content opens up "a thousand times more places to pitch too, a thousand times more brands than publications."

Last modified: 02 Nov 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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