The secret to good branded content

Published on
June 30, 2017
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The challenge with native advertising is making it useful enough so that it truly becomes “native” to the publishing environment—it needs to blend in with the surrounding editorial content so that readers will value that it was informative, educational or entertaining. The content must be clearly labeled as sponsored content so as not to alienate readers who think they’ve been tricked into reading an advertorial or infomercial.

One piece of native advertising that has been cited as an outstanding example of how to resolve this conflict was an interactive piece on the New York Times website about women in the US prison system, which described how policies and programs of most prisons don’t meet the needs of female inmates. It only becomes apparent that it was native advertising at the end of the article, when it’s revealed that it was brought to fruition by Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix TV show about women in prison.

It was called “awesome and elegant” by, a content marketing platform, which noted that there were only a few clues to the link between the Times piece and Netflix. One was a tiny banner at the top that indicated “Paid Post” and “Netflix.” The second was a brief mention in the article itself that quoted the author of the book on which the show is based. There was also a longer banner at the bottom that revealed the connection to the TV show.

T Brand Studio, the New York Times division that creates branded content, sent a team of journalists to interview psychologists, sociologists, and women prisoners, which gave depth to the piece. T Brand Studio is basically a commercial content operation that employs journalists, developers, creative technologists, visual designers, photographers, videographers, filmmakers, and marketers. Meredith Levin, who helped launch T Brand Studio in 2014, describes its mission as “to help brands do four things: develop content strategy, create content, distribute content, and measure the impact of that content.”

There’s a lesson here for all who heed it: not all publishers can be the Times, but they can offer content quality and seamless integration of audience and content.

The best native advertising makes almost no mention of the brand within the content. This points to the importance of authenticity. Consumers are smart, and their ability to detect the real from “paid” has become refined over the past few years. They will skip over content that they see no value in at lightning speed.

Some companies have taken the lead in developing their own native advertising. Intel’s branded content,, is structured like a traditional newsroom, with about eight different departments focused on subject matter from trend reports to practical information and includes both how-to content and entertainment-driven content. The editorial team is small, typically only three in-house Intel employees who write much of the content and also edit the work of an external network of about fifteen writers.

ConAgra Foods has created a series of 90-second videos that feature “Greg the Genie” who appears in a cloud of smoke when someone bites into a Slim Jim and makes a wish. ConAgra has experienced a noticeable uptick in brand awareness based on surveys of thousands of people who have seen the videos.

Companies have three main avenues with which to create native advertising. The first is to partner with a publisher, many of which have their own branded content teams, and collaborate with those teams to choose a topic and the direction of a native ad. The second is to work with an agency to help craft a series of articles or videos on a particular topic, which the company then distributes via a publisher. The third is to generate content in-house, like ConAgra and Intel, by utilizing their own subject matter experts.

Another company that is often cited for the quality of it’s native advertising is GE. They partnered with the Economist on articles about the future of technology under the byline, “GE Looks Ahead.” An example is an article entitled “What If We Could Live for 120 Years?” The piece reads as if it was written by a journalist who interviewed experts, and wrote a factual account about changes in longevity trends. In other words, it doesn’t read like a sales pitch for GE products or technologies.

As the examples of T Brand Studio, ConAgra, GE, and Intel demonstrate, just because it’s branded content doesn’t mean it cannot be good journalism. In fact, some of the best journalism today may be found in branded content.

Mike Smith, author of THE NATIVE ADVERTISING ADVANTAGE: Build Authentic Content That Revolutionizes Digital Marketing And Drives Revenue Growth, is senior vice president of revenue platforms and operations for Hearst Magazines Digital Media. His previous book, Targeted, was named one of the “Top 6 Business Books to Read” by and won the Axiom Gold Medal Award for best advertising/marketing book for 2015. For more information, please visit