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Agencies: How to Set Your Clients’ Content Marketing Expectations

Understanding something and being able to apply that knowledge doesn’t mean it’s easy to explain – especially when people understand the nature of things differently.

Take content marketing, for example. How many articles have we written on this very site explaining what it is (and isn’t) over the years? Then add in how many articles about content strategy vs. content marketing strategy have been written. We’ve even explored what content actually is. And we’re far from the only ones exploring these topics.

Add to the mix the concepts of branded content and native advertising (which can both be used with content marketing) and nearly everyone gets confused.

Whether you work on the agency or brand side, you’ve probably wondered whether your use of these terms matches the understanding of the person you’re talking to.

But when your agency’s view of content marketing, branded content, and native advertising diverges from your clients’ view, accurately characterizing the usefulness of these practices and counseling clients on which best fits their needs become nearly impossible.

It’s a challenge that bubbled up in our recent Agency Content Marketing 2019: Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends research. Of the write-in comments shared by respondents, the belief that their clients lack a clear understanding of what content marketing is all about and what role it should play in their marketing mix were among the most common problems cited.

Clients lack a clear understanding of what #contentmarketing is all about via @CMIContent. #agency #research Click To Tweet

To make sure agencies and clients are working from the same definitions, I’ve put together a quick primer on each of these three key techniques, along with some best-practice tips and examples to help guide your content decision-making when working with brand clients.

Do these distinctions really matter?

Content marketing, branded content, and native advertising are based on the same core premise – that creating relevant, high-quality content and distributing it to an audience eager to receive accurate and valuable information will help brands attract consumer attention, earn trust, and, ultimately, make consumers more likely to convert into loyal, satisfied customers.

Considering the many areas where these techniques overlap (or can and should), do the terms really matter?

While the lines between each approach can blur, a compelling case can be made for understanding the distinctions. As Robert Rose has argued, accurate labels aren’t as important as being able to choose which activities will work best for your client’s goals. However, being able to clearly explain the differences among content marketingbranded content, and native advertising can help the agency-brand relationship in two key ways:

  • It helps you make a stronger business case for experimenting with a technique your client may not have been open to. This is particularly useful when clients no longer achieve optimal results from existing techniques that they’re reluctant to abandon. For example, if a client is convinced that blog posts should be driving more traffic, explaining how native advertising can help put that content in front of more consumers might win buy-in to experiment with a native campaign.
  • It raises the chances of achieving success. For example, a branded content campaign that prominently features the brand may better support a short-term lift in brand loyalty, while a content marketing initiative may be more effective at driving awareness for a traditional brand looking to expand into a new market or launch a new product line.
A branded #content campaign may better support a short-term lift in loyalty, says @joderama. #agency Click To Tweet

“Put simply, knowing the differences can help you be more successful at any one of them,” Robert says. Not to mention that establishing a shared understanding of the work can minimize the frustrations, delays, and extra work that can result from misaligned expectations down the line.

With this in mind, let’s break down the three approaches one at a time:

Content marketing

CMI definition: Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

What makes it distinct and valuable: Content marketing is a strategic umbrella discipline that can take many forms, including email messages, blog posts, e-books, videos, and even social media updates. In this way, it can be similar to the kinds of assets your agency might use in any other type of marketing campaign – including native advertising and branded content initiatives.

But a couple characteristics of content marketing separate it from other content-focused marketing techniques:

  • It prioritizes the audience’s informational needs over the brand’s promotional ones. Instead of directly discussing or overtly promoting the brand’s products or service offerings, content marketing should provide a unique benefit to those who engage with it – something of significant value they are unlikely to find elsewhere – even if they never purchase from the business.

By becoming the most authoritative, reliable source of relevant answers, insights, and information the business is more likely to earn the audience’s trust. That, in turn, can exponentially increase the returns from the marketing efforts – including stronger, more enduring, and more profitable customer relationships.

#Contentmarketing prioritizes the audience’s informational needs over brand’s promotional ones. @joderama Click To Tweet
  • It should be produced consistently and published on channels the brand owns and controls. Unlike native advertising and branded content, which tend to be used for short-term campaigns, content marketing creates compelling opportunities for the audience to engage with a brand on an ongoing basis.

Ideally, content marketing involves owned and shared media channels that create a home base of sorts – a familiar hub for all the brand’s conversations. Under this model, your agency’s clients can set the tone and rules, and make whatever additions and adjustments they see fit. Because all content decisions remain under the brand’s control, content marketing efforts also remain free from the unexpected budgetary, creative, or placement constraints that external media platforms – including social media channels – might impose.

#Contentmarketing should be produced consistently & published on channels the brand owns and controls. @joderama Click To Tweet

Content marketing offers the versatility to apply to a brand’s highest priority business goals – from generating awareness and interest all the way to converting those engaged consumers into loyal customers and brand evangelists. 

Best practices in action: Wallis Annenberg PetSpace

One of my favorite recent content marketing examples comes from the nonprofit sector. Wallis Annenberg PetSpace (WAPS) is an inviting live exhibition space in Los Angeles where the community gathers to spend time with adoptable pets, learn more about their behavioral and health needs, and explore the very nature of the bond humans have forged with their animal pals.

To further its mission of helping pets and their people lead happier lives, PetSpace offers educational content that animal lovers can sink their fangs into. For example, in addition to a wide range of live content experiences at its exhibition center – such as training classes, summer camps, and free seminars – WAPS publishes fun interactive quizzes and inspirational stories on its website that highlight the joys and the responsibilities of pet adoption.

The organization also streams live videos of adoptable pets frolicking in its Paws Lounge to attract interested adopters, produces an award-winning PBS documentary series called Shelter Me, and creates shorter videos to share on its website, social channels, and media partners’ platforms. This one walks viewers through the journey adoptable pets take, from being rescued from hopeless situations to being rehabilitated and trained to finding loving, permanent homes.

Branded content

CMI definition: Branded content is a content creation tactic typically produced through a sponsored or paid partnership between the brand and the media. It encourages audiences to engage with the brand based on the content’s entertainment, information, and/or educational value.

Ideally, branded content campaigns create marketing experiences almost indiscernible from what the audience might seek from their favorite media/ entertainment personalities and properties – including film studios, TV networks, and streaming media services.

What makes it distinct and valuable: Branded content strikes a great balance between the creative flexibility of the most immersive forms of content marketing and the distribution power of paid promotion on popular media sites. Look at a few of the technique’s greatest strengths (when executed properly):

  • An immersive, sensory-driven approach to storytelling: Branded content typically leverages multimedia formats like audio and video, which can enable deeper topical conversations and more emotionally resonant experiences than text and/or static images alone.
Branded# content can be an immersive, sensory-driven approach to storytelling, says @joderama. #agency Click To Tweet
  • Entertaining, valuable, and memorable experience: Branded content campaigns excel when it comes to capturing audience interest, but they also are well-suited to contributing to lower-funnel goals. In fact, a recent study by Turner Ignite and Realeyes compared traditional 30-second ads with branded content and found the branded content campaigns make viewers more likely to consider the featured brand when it comes time to make a purchase.
  • Cross-channel distribution capabilities for on-the-go engagement: It’s easy for brands to publish branded content campaigns across multiple social networks, owned media properties, and other external websites. Because branded content is primarily audio- and video-driven, these efforts are well-suited for mobile consumption.
  • Opportunities to collaborate with other high-profile brands: Co-producing stories with other businesses that share your values and interests makes it easier to gain much-needed traction among the partner’s established audience. 

Because branded content is a pay-to-play technique, brands (and their agency partners) cede some control over the content creation process as well as the terms of distribution and engagement. And these highly customized, campaign-based initiatives can be costlier and more time-consuming to produce, given the emphasis on multimedia content, as well as the need to work closely with the media platform’s content team start to finish. But in return, your clients get to trade on their media partner’s trusted relationships with its target audience. The efforts are more likely to be viewed as worthier of the audience’s attention than product- and pitch-driven formats like digital ads. 

Best practices in action: The Atlantic & Netflix present Coerced

In early 2019, Netflix aired an eye-opening documentary, When They See Us, by acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay. The movie opened viewers eyes to the heartbreaking, racially motivated injustices perpetrated against five Harlem teenagers accused of committing a shocking act of violence in 1989 against a female jogger in Central Park. Despite clear evidence none had been involved, the boys – who came to be known as the Central Park Five – were each coerced into confessing and spent years in prison before the truth finally came to light.

It’s the kind of story that begs for deeper exploration and investigation 30 years later – a time when our society is becoming (marginally, at least) more aware of and more willing to engage in difficult conversations on the effects of institutional racism.

To help fuel those conversations – and guide an outraged audience toward ways to channel their frustrations into positive action, Netflix teamed up with The Atlantic to produce Coerced, a stunningly authoritative and insightful branded content companion piece.

Produced through the collaborative efforts of journalists, law and psychology scholars, police detectives, and activist organizations, Coerced uses multimedia storytelling to detail the original rape case and its aftermath. And it digs below the surface to reveal the mechanisms of bias that robbed five additional victims of their potential – and many years of freedom. Coerced is compelling proof that branded content can be used to drive meaningful actions that go far beyond the business goals. 

Native advertising

CMI definition: Native advertising is a paid third-party advertising technique that can support both branding and direct-response goals. But unlike other digital ad formats (like banner ads or pop-ups), the content is delivered in-stream so it’s less disruptive to the user’s normal engagement experience.

What makes it distinct and valuable: Native advertising shares many favorable characteristics with both content marketing and branded content. For example, as with content marketing, the best native ad content is typically information-based rather than product-focused. And like branded content, the content is designed to match the form, feel, function, and quality of the editorial content audiences expect to find on that media channel.

However, several characteristics separate native advertising from the other techniques:

  • Native advertising gives existing content assets a home away from home: Because native is a distribution play, the company can repurpose the content already shared on its owned media platforms. And since these third-party ads can be configured to drive that traffic to the company’s website, blog, or even custom landing page, your client can sustain those initial moments of interest by serving up relevant messaging, helpful content tools, or retargeting campaigns that will keep the business top of mind.
#Nativeadvertising gives existing content a home away from home, says @joderama. #agency Click To Tweet
  • It can establish the brand’s authority in new areas of expertise: Publishers that offer native advertising opportunities typically include placement on multiple sites across their media portfolio. With the right targeting strategy, this can extend the client’s reach among members of the core audience as well establish authority in a new area of expertise.
  • They can offer self-serve capabilities: Unlike branded content, which requires direct collaboration with your media partners, many large publisher networks provide native ad clients with self-serve management tools. As an agency, this means you can customize the audiences your clients target, build relevant campaigns, keep tabs on campaign performance, and adjust on the fly, giving you tremendous flexibility, distribution efficiency, and budgetary control.
  • Native ad units offer surprising versatility: You are probably familiar with the in-feed units found on many top publishers’ websites. But native advertising can come in several other forms, including search ads and recommendation widgets, as well as sponsored content opportunities on social channels like Facebook and Instagram. Some larger publishers even offer blogging partnership platforms (Forbes’ BrandVoice is one prominent example) as a native ad opportunity, which can appeal to audiences looking to dive more deeply into relevant, news-related topics.

Best practices in action: Washington College’s You’ll Love This Place

Aspiring to connect with the lives of high school students starting to consider their college options, Washington College partnered with youth-friendly media site BuzzFeed on a series of native posts focused on the theme, You’ll Love This Place. The topics spanned from life on Chesapeake Bay to incredible experiences as a freshman in college. The native ads were distributed across BuzzFeed’s website and multichannel social media properties, giving the posts massive reach, easy shareability, and mobile accessibility.

According to Washington College, the campaign resulted in a 77% page-view increase on Facebook and a 94% page-view increase to its website home page (year over year). It also generated 373 application inquiries to enroll and earned the college a 2018 Content Marketing Award for native advertising/sponsored content.

Content by any of these names can produce sweet results

No matter which of these three techniques – alone or in combination with other strategic marketing recommendations – you choose to work with, clearly understanding the benefits of each one will certainly help your agency deliver the best possible service to your marketing clients.

Learn how to create a content marketing strategy for your agency at an afternoon workshop Sept. 3 at Content Marketing World. And stay for the dedicated track on agency strategies during the main conference Sept. 4-6. Register today using CMIBLOG100 to save $100. 

A private Facebook Group titled Content Marketing – Agency Forum is devoted solely to agencies interested in learning and talking more about content marketing, its impact on agencies, and more. Email us for a private link to that space. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute