What I Learned Teaching College Students about Branded Content

By Jacqueline Lisk

Last Wednesday I spoke to Wesleyan University students in Dr. Rachel Besharat Mann’s Contemporary Literacy course about branded content and its role in the media ecosystem. Dr. Besharat Mann’s course explores what it means to be literate in the 21st century, with an emphasis on digital media’s impact on life, work, and education. A key component of media literacy is understanding who is paying for the content you are consuming and how to recognize the difference between traditional editorial and branded content – content created by or funded by an advertiser to achieve a marketing objective.

As a branded content creator and strategist, I am obviously pro-sponsored storytelling. (Real talk, it helps pay my bills.) But I am also pro-consumer education. The purpose of my visit to Wesleyan was not to be branded content’s hype woman. I was clear about the potential downsides and dangers of serving content that looks and feels like editorial. But, in my experience, raising awareness about sponsored storytelling helps to mitigate these dangers. I also believe the benefits of content marketing far outweigh the good for all parties in the media ecosystem – brands, publishers, and audiences.

The more audiences know about branded content, the more they like it, or at least accept it. My talks at Wesleyan last week confirmed this.

My presentation was FUN and INTERACTIVE. It included:

  • a definition of branded content
  • examples of sponsored articles and videos
  • how branded content differs from true editorial and traditional advertising
  • the potential benefits of branded content for advertisers and audiences
  • a brief history of branded content’s adoption by publishers
  • my own experience working with leading newspapers to understand how to approach branded content creation
  • how to recognize sponsored content “in the wild”
  • the integral role branded content plays in publishers’ monetization strategies

Here are a few takeaways from my discussions with the students.

When it comes to branded content, consumer education is needed

I spoke to two classes of students. In my first talk, only one student was familiar with branded content. In my second, only a handful had heard of it. As I shared examples of branded content, most students realized they had seen, or even engaged with, branded content before but hadn’t fully understood who had created it and / or paid for it. No surprise, most if not all students were familiar with sponsored social media posts.

Once people understand branded content, they are okay with it

At the end of both classes, I asked students to share their opinions of sponsored storytelling. Multiple people said that now that they understand branded content and its role in publisher monetization strategies, they “like” it better. One student said she would be more likely to engage with a sponsored post in the future because of the presentation.

I concluded by taking a “yea/nah” vote on branded content. (Not exactly a scientific study but useful nonetheless.) In the first class, all but two students voted “yea.” The other two were undecided. In the second class, participants anonymously voted “yea.”

Jacqueline Lisk speaking to students at Wesleyan University about branded content

Brands and publishers must follow best practices or lose audience trust

The branded content examples I shared were entertaining or informative, professionally produced, and not “salesy.” They were clearly slugged “sponsored content,” so it was clear to viewers or readers that the content differed from pure editorial – or at least it was clear once students understood where to look for “sponsored” labels, as verbiage and placement differs depending on the media outlet.

One student shared that he resents when a brand tries to “trick” him with a disguised sales message. His peers noted that if they are going to spend time engaging with sponsored content, it better be good, and it better deliver on what it promises in its title or headline. Brands and publishers must follow content marketing best practices or risk giving audiences a negative impression of their organization, or even a negative impression of all branded content.

People are curious about TV product placement

As part of our discussion, I brought up event sponsorships, experiential marketing, and TV product placement to illustrate other ways brands engage with audiences beyond traditional, interruptive advertising. We agreed that it is often unclear if and when a company is paying to have its product incorporated into TV programming. To my knowledge, if there is editorial justification for the product to be used in the scene – meaning it makes sense considering the plot, setting, character development, etc. – paid-for product placements do not need to be disclosed to viewers. Students were not distraught or angered by this, more curious. Educating mass audiences about product placement, and all aspects of marketing, really, will help consumers understand and accept this marketing strategy and benefit both brands and content creators.

The kids are alright

These students were attentive, engaged, and adept critical thinkers. They asked thoughtful questions and shared thought-provoking viewpoints. They were curious and open-minded, obviously digitally-savvy but honest about what they did not know. I would also describe them as reasonable. They understand media companies need money to create and share the content audiences love. They understand brands are looking for creative ways to connect with consumers without annoying them.

We also discussed the role sponsored storytelling can play in a creative’s career, including my own, and how taking on a well-paying branded content project (that hopefully interests you) can fund your purely creative work.

Final note: the classes anonymously agreed the public needs more educational sessions like this one. Maybe they just wanted to make me feel good, but they seemed to mean it.

To reach out about a potential speaking opportunity, email info@jrlisk.com

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