MacBook pro with a sticker that says “storyteller”

Should news publishers rethink branded content?

My partner and I have been hearing a common concern as we have conversations with news publishers about branded content: a worry that inviting external partners to invest in content and experiences will commercialize their storytelling, betray their missions, and erode trust within their communities.

These concerns rightfully go beyond tactical issues like clear labeling of paid content and address the broader philosophical implications of working with outside entities that fund the development of content for a news organization’s audience.

For some publishers, it just feels like the wrong fit, and depending on their objectives and model, this might be the right stance.

However, I encourage news publishers to broaden their thinking about what might be possible with branded content—which we internally call “partner-supported content” because we think the term better represents the breadth of possibilities for this tactic—and consider whether it’s an approach worth trying after reflecting on an interesting paradox about why it can feel so uncomfortable.

The paradox of creating ‘journalism-grade’ branded content

“Just Do It.” “Think Different.” “Because You’re Worth It.” These iconic taglines from Nike, Apple, and L’Oreal succeed without any direct mention of the brand. They leverage what the very best marketers understand: People connect with messages that empower and center them. It’s why some of the most effective marketing makes the brand feel almost beside the point in the messaging.

Branded content will feel disconnected from a news publisher’s mission when it is too focused on telling the partner’s story. When this happens, it misses opportunities to fully engage the audience because it doesn’t adequately center their needs, priorities, or interests. (And in doing so, it won’t be an effective tactic for the partner, either.)

It’s no wonder some news publishers have misgivings about this type of work. In addition to concerns about how inviting third parties might impact their newsrooms overall, the relevance of the content to their communities when they do find the right partners often feels forced. And that’s because, when executed in a way that centers the partner in the storytelling, it is.

Herein lies the paradox: Adopting a marketer’s mindset when inviting partners to invest in storytelling can actually enhance its relevance and value to a publisher’s community. Applying marketing savvy and strategy can yield partner-supported work that delivers highly relevant insight, inspiration, information, and value to the publisher’s audience, aligning with their mission while putting the partner in its rightful place—a supporting role in bringing that storytelling to life.

Reframing partner-supported storytelling

A campaign we recently wrapped up illustrates the power of partner-supported content when the storytelling centers the audience and strategically sidelines the partner. We helped a leading news publication secure a major investment from a university for a yearlong series that unpacked myriad systemic drivers of violence and incivility and explored research-backed insights and interventions.

Rather than simply showcasing the university’s work—and there was ample material to profile its professors, programs, research, and community initiatives if we’d wanted to—the series instead provided an eye-opening perspective on violence and incivility, aimed at empowering and inspiring the publisher’s readers and community. It offered insights into systemic innovations and community-driven interventions, enabling audiences to understand the roles they can play within larger efforts to foster civility.

The university supplied much of the raw material needed to deliver this value to the publication’s audience. We cited their experts, who provided much (though not all) of the necessary insights, research, analysis, and contextualization of the concepts. By decentering the partner as the subject of the series and instead positioning them as a resource focused on providing valuable information to the community, we allowed the audience to see for themselves how engaged and cutting-edge the university was on these issues.

This approach delivers real value and relevance to news publishers’ communities. For publishers, it builds their storytelling capacity and supports their mission. And for partners, it helps them shine without triggering audiences’ apathy—or outright aversion—to overt marketing.

Begin exploring what’s possible with these four questions

For publishers considering embracing or rethinking partner-supported content, here are some questions to help assess whether this approach could align with your editorial mission and enhance your community engagement:

  1. What criteria would a potential partner need to meet to ensure their contributions genuinely support and enhance your community’s interests? Consider the ideal attributes of a partner who can help deliver content and/or experiences that benefit and resonate with your community. Also: For what types of partners might there be opportunities for built-in alignment between their potential goals and your community ‘s information needs?
  2. What specific characteristics would partner-supported content campaigns need to possess to align with your publication’s objectives, ethos, and standards? This question moves beyond the types of partners you’ll work with and looks at the collaborations you might execute. Reflect on your publication’s core principles and values: How can branded content uphold these values to protect the trust and reputation you’ve built with your audience?
  3. Are there untapped topics or community issues that partner-supported content could effectively address? Identify gaps in your current coverage or community needs that are not being met. How could the right partnership help you fill these gaps with engaging, informative content and/or experiences?
  4. What steps can you take to explore the potential of partner-supported content in a way that feels authentic and transparent to your audience? Draft a preliminary plan to experiment with a branded content initiative. What steps would you take to ensure relevance and maintain trust with your audience?  (One step you can take: inbox me!)

I understand some news publishers’ reticence toward branded content and think discernment is warranted and required. I was highly discerning myself when I ran an independent publication and began formulating how we’d work with community-centered organizations on engaging paid campaigns. In fact, this critical lens is exactly what helped me to develop an approach I could fulsomely embrace. 

So, consider what’s possible if partner-supported content employs marketing tactics in ways that promote your overall mission. You might unlock pathways for inviting third parties into supporting your storytelling, growing your capacity, and being part of your sustainability formula if you apply some marketing savvy to your storytelling in ways that benefit your communities and partners, and that complement your newsrooms’ work.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *